Border Force

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:35 pm on 4 September 2013.

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Hon. Members:

Where is she?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I hear Opposition Members shouting out about where the Home Secretary is. I know that the shadow Home Secretary has no confidence in the shadow Immigration Minister, after his extraordinarily successful summer, but I am responsible for these matters in the Home Office and I am dealing with the urgent question.

Early in 2011, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration—

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Where’s the Home Secretary?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

It is no good Members complaining. They ought to remember that this Government inherited from Labour a border system that, like many other parts of government, was not functioning very well at all. This is another area where we have had to put things right.

In 2011, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration reported that border security checks were often suspended without ministerial approval, and found poor communication, poor managerial oversight and a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities in Border Force. In response, the Home Secretary removed Border Force from the old UK Border Agency and brought it back within the direct command of the Home Office. Since then we have seen a considerable improvement in performance. As the NAO recognises, all passengers are now checked and queue times are reduced. Indeed, as set out in its last report, targets for detection and seizure of harmful goods and substances are being met and exceeded.

The UK operates one of the most secure borders in the world, with more than 200 million people crossing the border and hundreds of billions of pounds of goods imported and exported. The capability delivered by our border systems is one of the most advanced in Europe and among the best in the world. We are one of only a handful of countries that operate a pre-departure checking system, preventing those who would do us most harm from even boarding aircraft, but of course there is some way to go. Border Force has carried out extensive works on its systems, including the warnings index, which ensures that dangerous persons are identified at the border, to ensure that it continues to operate effectively. We will continue to drive up the performance and resilience of the warnings index and other key systems to ensure that they fully support our officers’ efforts to protect the border.

The culture and morale in Border Force are very important. We are dedicated to ensuring that every member of staff is motivated, trained and developed. Challenges remain, but I and Sir Charles Montgomery, the new permanent director-general, a former Second

Sea Lord, have visited many staff at the border to speak to them. I have found a work force proud of the work they do, committed to the task in hand and always keen to tell me about their successes and the challenges that exist.

People have said that we are not checking everyone who comes into the country, but the report is clear that that is not the case. Since we introduced the ministerially endorsed operating mandate last year, full checks are being delivered at our ports. Last year, more than 135 million passengers and crew were screened even before they reached the border, resulting in more than 2,880 arrests, including for murder, rape and kidnap.

As well as checking all passengers arriving, we continue to perform intelligence-led checks on goods and freight coming into the country. The National Audit Office confirms that Border Force is meeting and exceeding targets for seizures of some of the most dangerous and harmful materials that criminals attempt to bring into the country. Our class A drugs and firearms targets are being met and exceeded, as are our targets for illegal entrants at our juxtaposed border controls in France and Belgium. Last year we detected 6,000 clandestine attempts at Calais alone and this year we are running ahead of that rate.

Since its establishment last year, Border Force has been working to ensure that the chief inspector’s recommendations have been addressed. During last year’s Olympics, Border Force received significant recognition for its work ensuring that athletes, VIPs and visitors from across the world entered the country without delay, in order that the UK could deliver a world-class games. I am delighted to say that the NAO’s report confirms that we have improved against every one of the recommendations in the chief inspector’s report. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Shadow Home Secretary, Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

That was a very complacent response from the Minister, with no explanation of where the Home Secretary is. Today’s National Audit Office report reveals that customs examinations, including for drugs and firearms, are being suspended to cope with passport controls, that checks for illegal migrants hiding in lorries are frequently being stopped, and that staff are reducing the questioning of those with suspect visas in order to meet other pressures. The report also reveals a culture of fear and low morale, as well as leadership problems, with five different directors-general in the past 18 months, staff shortages, understaffing at countless ports even after the latest recruitment, and a funding gap. It states that the Department’s internal auditors have confirmed that the Olympics and wider resourcing issues have had an impact on the security of the border. Will the Home Secretary now publish that internal audit report, so that we can find out how many times checks were stopped?

The NAO report also states:

“In Calais, we observed officers being taken off controls to detect clandestine illegal entrants to the UK concealed in lorries in order to deal with passenger queues”.

That was seen to happen three times in three days, and freight searching was suspended on a further 19 occasions due to understaffing. So, if checks were stopped 21 times in three days, how many times have they been stopped in the past year? At that rate, it would have been

2,500 times at Calais alone. It is no wonder that they stopped trying to fingerprint stowaways; it seems as though they stopped trying to catch them at all.

It also seems as though the Home Secretary’s only answer to illegal immigration is to get a man in a van to drive round in circles with a poster asking people if they would mind going home. People do not want gimmicks; they want the Government to get the basics of border security right. The Home Secretary cannot duck her responsibility for that. She ignored the warnings and cut 500 staff from the Border Force before the Olympics. She is just shunting the problem round in circles. First the passport checks, then hours of queues, and now drops in checks on stowaways, guns and drugs and, still, a big drop in the number of illegal migrants being stopped at our border.

The Government are not sorting out the fundamental problems. Each time, the Home Secretary blames someone else, reshuffles the deckchairs and sends someone else to answer the questions. So, will this Minister answer the questions? How many times have the checks been stopped? Will he publish the internal report? And will the Government stop ducking their responsibility and sort the fundamental problems out?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

First, the right hon. Lady is not right to say that checks were suspended. That is not what the report says. As she will know, there is a layered approach at Calais. Checks are done by Border Force officers, and searching by the port authorities also takes place, using equipment supplied by us. We also have contractors, who were absolutely excellent and very successful when I visited in the summer. The day I was there, one of our contractors with detector dogs had that morning found 24 people attempting to enter—[Interruption.] Well, with the greatest respect, I know that labradors are intelligent, but I do not think that that labrador was aware that a Minister was arriving to observe the search for clandestine immigrants. I believe that that level of performance is sustained every day. [Interruption.] Chris Bryant has not had a great summer for well-researched thought-through speeches, as everyone in the House is well aware. Perhaps it would be welcome if we heard a little less from him. It is not the case that checks were suspended, even if Border Force officers were dealing with queues. Freight searching was still being carried out, both by our contractors and by the port authorities.

The shadow Home Secretary also referred to the decision not to fingerprint clandestines. I remind her that that decision was actually taken by the former Government of whom she was a member. It was taken early in 2010, which, if I remember rightly, was before the last general election. As I said in response to the chief inspector’s report, that is something that we are reviewing to see whether the decision remains sensible.

On the issue of a culture of fear, all I can say is that I have visited a number of our ports—both airports and seaports—and our juxtaposed controls and, in my experience, the officers I met were, as I said in my statement, dedicated staff. I did not find any reticence on the part of officers in either saying what they were good at or stating where they thought there were issues. They raised their concerns directly with Ministers, and my experience was also the experience of the director-general. I say simply, then, that what the right hon. Lady mentioned was not my experience.

I think I have dealt with the shadow Home Secretary’s point about leadership, as we have now appointed a permanent director-general who, in his capacity as Second Sea Lord, has a record of achievement from outside the Department. I believe that he has already started to lead the organisation in a very powerful way.

Finally, the right hon. Lady made a last throwaway remark about our pilot of publicity on vans. I would point out here that most of the public support the tough stance we have taken on illegal immigration and that the majority of voters of all parties—72% of the public—support the vans. They want to see our tough approach continue and they do not want the weak approach of the Labour party.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I would like to thank the Minister for a very visible improvement in the performance of the Border Agency over the last year or so, and urge him to work with his staff to ensure that ever-higher standards are achieved by promptly and courteously allowing the legal people in and by ensuring that we find all the illegals at the first point of entry.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I know from a conversation we had that he has seen the work that our border officers do in our juxtaposed controls, where attempted illegal entries are prevented from even getting to the United Kingdom. He makes a good point, too, about the rest of the UK Border Agency after the agency’s split into the two component parts of UK visas and immigration and immigration enforcement. It is doing exactly what my right hon. Friend said, which is to welcome those who come to Britain to contribute—skilled workers and students, for example—while deterring those who do not and ensuring that those who overstay their welcome are removed from the country.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

Ministers were right to respond to public concern and the recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee by putting in additional staff to check passports, but it appears from this report that that came at the expense of those who should have been checking vehicles and people before they entered the country. Will he confirm whether that was, in fact, the case; and will he further confirm that the legal loophole, mentioned in the report by John Vine, has now been closed? Does he agree that co-operation with our EU partners is essential, given that the UK border is actually the border between Turkey and Greece—that is where illegal migration enters the EU—and that unless the French are prepared to work with us in furthering that co-operation, we will not be able to stop people entering our country?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I welcome the remarks of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. He raised three questions, which I shall endeavour to answer. The first was about resources, and given that the checks were not being conducted as they should have been in all cases, it would be fair to say that in responding to the chief inspector’s report and implementing the operating mandate, it was clearly necessary to increase the resources going into the Department. As to whether we have the balance right, it is obviously something that we keep under review, and it is a challenge for all operational managers.

I refer back to the National Audit Office’s last report, not the one published today, that looked into our detection and seizure of serious goods—class A drugs, firearms and so forth—that people were attempting to get through the border. The report said that in all those cases we were meeting and exceeding our seizure and detection targets. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I think that we are succeeding.

I do not have time to go in detail into the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the legal loophole, but I can say that we are making considerable progress and that his general point about the importance of partnership working is absolutely true. I recall a visit last autumn when I met the new French Interior Minister, and I visited Calais and Coquelles this summer in order to see for myself the co-operative work going on between the French port authorities and our Border Force officers. Such co-operation is excellent and we need to keep it in that good shape as we go forward.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

Does not the report demonstrate that endless headline-grabbing reorganisations and legislation—with four Acts coming from the last Government alone—were always less important than ensuring that the system we have is effective, efficient and well managed? Is that not something on which we should all be able to agree, instead of turning this serious issue into a party political football?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I agree with my hon. Friend and Gloucestershire near-neighbour. It was clear from the chief inspector’s report that we had inherited an organisation that was not doing the day job properly, and was not checking everyone who was coming into the country. The whole point of splitting Border Force from the UK Border Agency was to improve that situation. The NAO report has made it clear that we have made progress in regard to all the chief inspector’s recommendations, that we are dealing with the issues that have been raised, and that Border Force is in better shape. However, we are not complacent. There is always more to do, and we now have an excellent director-general who is leading that important job of work.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

Will the Minister confirm that he and the Home Secretary have been receiving monthly reports about the length of queues? If that is the case, will he tell us whether those reports have included details of the number of checks carried out in relation to illegal entry and, indeed, items such as drugs and firearms?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

As the report says, there was a period when there was a real problem with queues and the Home Secretary and I were receiving frequent reports every day, but I am pleased to say that that is no longer necessary, because the organisation is now in much better shape. We focused very much on that problem, but it has largely been fixed, and I think more than 99% of passengers entering the country are now dealt with through our service level agreements.

As I said to Keith Vaz, we are meeting and exceeding our targets in relation to the detection of firearms and substances such as class A drugs which people attempt to bring into the country. Border Force is delivering on that.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

If the right hon. Lady looks at the NAO’s report, which it compiled specifically on this issue for the 2012-13 financial year, she will see that during that period we were meeting and exceeding our targets on class A drugs and firearms. [Interruption.] It is true. I will be frank and admit that we were doing less well on tobacco and counterfeit goods, but in relation to the really important things such as class A drugs and firearms we were meeting and exceeding our targets. I think that that should reassure Members.

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon

The key question must be whether Border Force has the capacity to carry out both the customs checks and the passenger checks that are necessary to protect our national security. The NAO report expresses concern about that. Does the Minister think that Border Force’s current recruitment process will deal with any concerns that he may have?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I thank my hon. Friend—who is also a member of the Home Affairs Committee—for her question. As I explained in my response to the shadow Home Secretary, there was a problem to start with when we introduced the operating mandate. Full checks of people coming into the country were not being carried out. We accordingly provided more resources, and, as my hon. Friend acknowledged in her question, we are now hiring new Border Force staff in a number of ports. Our best assessment is that both funding and manpower are sufficient to enable us to do the job, and, although of course we keep the position under review at all times, I think that the balance is right at the moment.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

If everything is fine, why is the National Audit Office so critical of so many aspects, including what it describes as “a culture of fear” and “low morale” among Border Force officers? Incidentally, should not the Home Secretary, rather than the Minister, be here to respond to my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I think I explained that in my response. I am the Immigration Minister, I am responsible for these parts of the Home Office, and the Home Secretary is content for me to deal with this. [Interruption.] The shadow Immigration Minister should stop chuntering from a sedentary position. He has had not had a great summer. I can understand why the shadow Home Secretary—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I am very pleased, on this occasion, to agree 100% with that sentiment, Mr. Speaker. I think I speak for most Members when I say that.

Let me respond to the serious point made by Mr Winnick. I do not think I said in my response that everything was rosy. I said that we had inherited an organisation with problems, that we were tackling the problems and that there was more to do. I also said that in response to the question from my hon. Friend Martin Horwood, and I pointed out that we had a new director-general.

My experience in the Home Office is that there is always more to do. We have to keep on top of the task of dealing with people who try to come into the country and should not be doing so—while welcoming those who should—and we have to deal with the ever-changing security threats. That is a challenge that I think we are meeting, and meeting every day. I should add that our front-line officers do an excellent job in keeping the United Kingdom safe.

Photo of Mark Reckless Mark Reckless Conservative, Rochester and Strood

Should not the Border Force, like any organisation that has to deal with pronounced peaks in customer demand, be allowed the flexibility that would enable it to transfer staff from other activities to assist when there are such peaks in demand? Obviously, if we are given intelligence that drugs are coming through, we shall not want to transfer the staff who will deal with that, but is not transferring people who are carrying out fewer random checks than others an example of sensible management?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

My hon. Friend has made a sensible point about intelligence. Obviously, as I said in my response, we use it to guide the efforts that we put into freight checking. My hon. Friend has also made the sensible point that there are peaks and troughs in the number of passengers crossing the border. As well as our permanent work force, we have staff on whom we can call at those peak times to ensure that we continue to deliver a secure border, but we are also mindful, of the need to deliver value for money, which the National Audit Office mentions in its report. Of course, all Departments have to deal with the appalling financial legacy that we were left by the Labour party.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

The Minister has laid much stress on the quality of border checks. As he will know, at the end of the last Session I was privileged to be elected chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking, and in that role I have been meeting groups who work with trafficked people. Kalayaan tells me that it has yet to meet a holder of an overseas domestic worker visa who, under the new visa system, has actually carried his or her own passport through the passport check. The passport is always held by the visa holder’s employer. What will the Minister do about that?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

The operating mandate specifies that everyone who crosses the border must have his or her passport checked and must have the necessary documents. On the basis of what I know, I do not think that what the hon. Lady says is correct, but I will make inquiries and then write to her. I think that that is a reasonable way to approach the matter. In the meantime, given her position as chair of the all-party group, I shall be happy to maintain a sensible dialogue with her on human-trafficking issues.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

UK Border Force did an excellent job during the Olympics, welcoming millions of new visitors. We hope that they will come back, in which case we will welcome them warmly again. However, is it not time that there were separate streams at our airports and ports—one for UK nationals with UK passports who are returning to the country, one for EU entrants and one for everyone else? Would that not enable us to streamline the whole process?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

First, as my hon. Friend knows, one of our obligations as members of the European Union is to deal with European passport holders together with those from the UK. Secondly—this is a practical point—adopting his suggestion would require us and the airports to spend an extraordinary amount of money on remodelling all our airports and ports, which I do not think would be very sensible at present.

The basis of my hon. Friend’s point, however, is the need to ensure that British citizens returning home, EU nationals coming to Britain and people coming here from outside the EU all have a good experience at the border. The NAO report suggests that we are performing the necessary checks to make certain that the border is secure, while processing people within the provisions of our service level agreements and enabling them swiftly to enter the United Kingdom, where they will be able to work and spend some of their hard-earned money to benefit our economy.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

There may well be an argument for some staff flexibility, but can the Minister positively assure us that there is no danger that some officials are more worried about television pictures of queues than about the risks at our borders?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that. I make it very clear on my visits, as does the director-general, that we must deal with both those challenges—people crossing the border and freight. As I said in response to the shadow Home Secretary, there was no suspension of freight checks at Calais. We adopt a multi-layered approach. Even when Border Force officers are not searching vehicles, the staff at the port and our contractors are doing so. I am confident that there are proper checks on people coming into the United Kingdom, and proper intelligence-led checks on freight and goods as well.

Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Border Force team in Tilbury, in my constituency, have been reporting much higher morale since being spun out from the Border Agency? Does not the report also confirm that that was exactly the right decision?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comment. I had the great pleasure of visiting Tilbury with her early in my time as Immigration Minister, and was very impressed with the engagement of staff there. As she says, the report confirms making Border Force a stand-alone organisation in the Home Office was the right thing to do. It has enabled the organisation to focus on delivering on the operating mandate, and I think that under the new permanent leadership of Sir Charles Montgomery, that process will continue.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Leader of the House of Commons

Is the substance of what is reported in the national newspapers accurate or inaccurate, and what challenges does the Minister think still remain?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

Having gone through the report very carefully, I think that it is probably fair to say that not all the national newspapers over-egged the pudding in how they reported the report. I thought that the report was very balanced. The interviews that the National Audit Office did this morning were very balanced. It made the point that Border Force is doing lots of things very well, but it recognises that there are still challenges. I think that I echoed that tone in my remarks. We have made significant improvements, but there is still more work to be done. That, in a nutshell, is what the NAO said in its report, and we are grateful for the work that it does.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry The Second Church Estates Commissioner, The Second Church Estates Commissioner

My hon. Friend said that last year Border Force detained some 6,000 people at Calais trying to enter the UK. Presumably, all of them were already illegal immigrants in France. Following on from the comments of the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz, can my hon. Friend tell the House what the French are doing to remove from their jurisdiction illegal immigrants who are intent upon entering our jurisdiction?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

My hon. Friend asks a two-part question. The first part was whether everyone trying to enter the UK illegally is necessarily in France illegally. That is not necessarily the case. France is in Schengen, of course, and there are people who are entitled to be in France but who do not have the right to enter Britain illegally in the back of a lorry, so we stop them entering. Some of them are, of course, in France illegally, however, and we work with our French colleagues by doing what we can to help them to make sure they are removed from France. Not all of them will be in France illegally, however, and I reiterate what I said in response to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee: partnership-working with our colleagues in France is very important and works very well, and we want to make sure that that strong relationship continues because it is how we keep our border secure.

Photo of Geoffrey Robinson Geoffrey Robinson Labour, Coventry North West

Did I hear the Minister right when he said we are doing less well on illegal cigarettes? That is very noticeable in Coventry, which has become a centre nationally for massive trafficking in cigarettes. Does he agree with the NAO director, Louise Bladen, that—despite all the reassurances he has given us, with great politeness and courtesy—it is just not the case that the resources are there to deal with cigarettes, for example, which are continuing to flood in?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

We do a very good in intercepting hundreds of millions of illegal cigarettes every year, bur I was making a point about the relative focus. The last NAO report found that we were meeting and exceeding our targets on class A drugs and firearms. On cigarettes, we were doing less well, but we are still intercepting hundreds of millions of cigarettes. We work with our colleagues overseas to intercept where they are being manufactured and brought into the country. I have seen lots of examples from visits of where our officers have intercepted considerable volumes of cigarettes. That work needs continuous attention. I was simply making the point that, clearly, if we are going to focus our resources, I would prioritise dealing with class A drugs, firearms, illegal immigration and people who put weapons together above cigarettes, but that was in no way to say that dealing with the illegal smuggling of tobacco was in any way unimportant.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

I congratulate the Minister because it is clear that the Department under his leadership has been doing much—

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

Under his leadership on the immigration issue, the Department has done extremely well to improve UKBA over the last year, because is it not true that we inherited a massive pig in a poke from the last Labour Government, including massive net immigration, uncontrolled transitional arrangements for eastern Europeans, the Human Rights Act 1998, a 450,000 asylum backlog and all the rest of it. The Minister inherited a complete mess from the Labour party, and does he agree that we are doing everything to improve that position?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I agree with my hon. Friend, and let me say two things. On the cigarette point, despite the fact that the last report found that we were not hitting the target for cigarette seizures, cigarette seizures were still up by 7%, so Border Force was improving its performance; it just was not improving it fast enough to hit our very ambitious targets. In answer to my hon. Friend’s general point, what he said provides me with a good opportunity to say that I am glad to be able to report that that huge asylum backlog was largely sorted out before I became Immigration Minister by my excellent ministerial colleague, my right hon. Friend Damian Green, so I had a much better inheritance than the one that he inherited from the Labour party.

Photo of Pamela Nash Pamela Nash Labour, Airdrie and Shotts

The NAO report and the Minister’s answers today have made it clear that freight checks were adversely affected as a result of staff shortages and policy changes. Can he tell us how many illegal migrants have been found on freight this year and in previous years?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I do not think I acknowledged that at all. In terms of the figures that I set out for Calais, 6,000 attempted illegal migrants were intercepted last year and so far this year we are running ahead of that rate, so I am confident that the full-year total will be ahead of it. The performance is improving, therefore. I saw that myself when I visited, and our officers do an excellent job in stopping people even getting to the UK. That is why the juxtaposed controls are so important.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Chair, Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill Committee, Chair, Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill Committee

Does my hon. Friend share my constituents’ anger about the last Labour Government’s record on immigration? They allowed net immigration to rise from about 35,000 a year to over 200,000 a year in the Labour years. May I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Home Secretary on reducing net immigration by a third in just three years in office?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

My right hon. Friend is right; that is certainly the view that I get, too. There is one thing that Labour never acknowledge when criticised on this. They happily acknowledge that they made mistakes on immigration from eastern Europe, but they forget to tell the public that, under their watch, immigration from outside the EU went up by far more. They have never apologised for that.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Culture and Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

Will the Minister assure me he will not bring these xenophobic “go home” hate vans to Scotland, and will he remove the unwanted, disgraceful “go home” materials from the UKBA office in Glasgow?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I do not think the hon. Gentleman reflects the views of the public in the way that he characterises those vans. The majority of people in this country want a very robust stance. Asking people who have no right to be in the UK—who are here unlawfully, taking the mickey out of everyone else—to go home, as they should do, rather than forcing the taxpayer to spend up to £15,000 on arresting, detaining and enforcing their removal, is a very sensible thing to do, and I am not going to apologise for it.

Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

I represent the port of Heysham, where we have had success in stopping tobacco smuggling. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is good news under your tenure, and would you like to come to the port and see how it does it?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

Mr Speaker, you are, of course, always welcome to visit any of our ports if you want to do so. I would be very pleased to take you on a conducted tour if ever you have a moment and are willing to do so.

In answer to my hon. Friend’s question, I will look at my schedule of visits. I am always happy to visit our operations around the country to see what our officers are doing on the front line. I find those visits very illuminating, and as I have said, officers take advantage of them to share with Ministers and the director-general both the things that are going well and the things that they think we ought to focus more on.

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr

What checks have been made on individuals with serious criminal records from eastern Europe entering the UK?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

Checks are made, but to some extent we are dependent on what other countries tell us. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the second generation of the Schengen information system will hugely improve our ability to share criminal record information with our European partners, and when that comes online in the next year or so, it will give us a much greater ability to stop known criminals entering the UK and therefore enable us to protect the border better.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Conservative, Croydon Central

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to what the NAO had to say about the improvements that Border Force has made at

Gatwick? Does he agree that that is illustrative of the wider picture, which is that there is absolutely no room for complacency and further improvements are needed, but today our border is more secure than it was under the last Government, when hundreds of thousands of people were allowed to come into this country illegally?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I am pleased to agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. He might be interested to know that, as announced just today, our Border Force officers seized 8 kg of cocaine, with a street value of up to £800,000, at Gatwick airport. That demonstrates the sort of work that they carry out every day to keep the country secure, both from those who come here who should not be here and from harmful goods that people try to bring into the country.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Labour, Corby

A week after the Home Office’s racist “go home” vans had been touring English cities, I visited the mosque in Corby and was appalled to find outside it the words “go home” in very large letters. That was the act of a tiny minority of people in my community, spurred on by the Government’s racist attack on people in this country.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I simply do not agree with the hon. Gentleman and, if the polling is to be believed, neither do the British people. Most people in this country do not agree with that characterisation of our pilot. It was clearly aimed at people who have no right to be in the country, not at British citizens or people who are here lawfully. We were asking people who were here illegally to leave the country. We are running a pilot and we will look at its results to decide whether or not it should be rolled out. I simply do not agree with him, and I do not think the British public do either.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Massive net immigration, 450,000 asylum seekers in a backlog, no transitional controls and the Human Rights Act—that is the shambles we were left by the Opposition. May I say how brilliant it is that the Government are sorting it out?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. As I have said, it is a bit rich listening to the Labour party moan about all the things that it left us and we are fixing—that constant refrain applies across all Departments. May I say, in answer to a previous question, that the second generation of the Schengen information sharing system will be online, under the current plan, at the end of October 2014? That will very much improve our ability to deal with criminals from elsewhere in the European Union.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

Cigarette smuggling through the airports in Northern Ireland is excessive; there is also some indication of paramilitary involvement. Border Force staff have told me that, if there were more staff, they could combat the issue clearly at the airports. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that extra staff are made available in Northern Ireland to take on this issue?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

Obviously, we look at the intelligence available to us, particularly on freight. I am well aware of the potential paramilitary implications in Northern

Ireland of cross-border smuggling and the fact that organised crime may be funded in this way. So we look at that information on organised crime. We have also created the National Crime Agency, albeit with restrictions on its actions in Northern Ireland in the criminal justice sphere. In the border field, however, the border policing command, the improved intelligence that we get and the increased ability to combat crime will be helpful in combating both the crimes the hon. Gentleman has mentioned and others that cross our borders.

Photo of Stephen Metcalfe Stephen Metcalfe Conservative, South Basildon and East Thurrock

The London Gateway port is opening this autumn, so my constituents will welcome the improvements identified by the NAO and the tightening of our border controls. Does the Minister agree that it is time for the Labour party to just say sorry for the chaos that it left us to sort out?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I agree with my hon. Friend. I have looked at some of the plans for the London Gateway, which is an excellent development; it is a really important port. I sense that London Gateway and Felixstowe will be competing with each other as to which is the largest port in the United Kingdom. We work closely with the port operator, and we will properly resource the checks at the port. He can have confidence that we will do that.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

My constituents, many of whom work at the controls in Dover and Calais, think that the Government have had real success in stopping illegal entry into this country, after years when people could just basically wander in. However, my constituents do have concerns about smuggling and trafficking, so will the Minister seek to prioritise lorry checking at Dover and investment in smashing international supply chains for traffickers and smugglers?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Minister for Immigration

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. Again, I had the pleasure of visiting the port in his constituency and talking to officers, who raised some of the points that he has just raised with me about getting that balance right across Border Force between checking people and checking goods. We keep that under review, looking at the intelligence about the threats to the United Kingdom. We deal with that on a daily basis, and I hope that I can give him that reassurance.