Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 25th November 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 8:15 pm, 25th November 2008

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, beat me to it on this debate, although my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition has tabled an Early Day Motion in the other place, where he beat the Liberal Democrats. He put down the Motion so that this extremely important change in the Immigration Rules could be debated, because it was not going to be debated; it was going to pass through both Houses on a waft, without consideration. The fact that the Early Day Motion has been tabled, although time has not yet been found for it in the Commons, and that this Motion today has been tabled means that we at least have an opportunity to look at all these points.

The concerns raised by other noble Lords have been raised by many bodies. In particular, I have been briefed by the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association, which, I am sure, has written to other Members on the effects that the implementation of the changes to Immigration Rules under HC 1113 will have on the immigration system for those wishing to come to this country from outside EEC countries.

In general, from this side of the House, while having some reservations about the limitations of the new points-based system, we have supported the principles behind it because it brings some control of immigration to this country. However, it is clear from the briefings that we have received and the speeches that we have heard that the speed at which this is being done and the bureaucracy that is entangling it are causing trouble. I am sure that the Minister's ears will have heard that tonight. The essential ingredient of the scheme is the licensed sponsor aspect, which replaces work permits. If that does not work, the whole pack of cards will come down.

Supplementary to an Oral Question put a couple of weeks ago, the Minister may recall that I asked how many sponsors had been licensed by the UK Border Agency. Unfortunately, he was unable to answer the question on the hoof—I am not entirely surprised—but he did say that he would write to me. I am still waiting for the answer to that question, because it becomes immediately relevant again today. The noble Lord need not write to me, because I now have the answer: it is 745. That needs to be set against the number of employers—I do not know it, but the Minister may be able to tell me—who currently employ people with work permits and who will need to become sponsors for future employees or further employment of those who are here.

Entry to this country is severely limited by the points-based system. Under tier 2, for skilled workers, tier 4, for students, and tier 5, for youth mobility and temporary workers—all those who would previously have applied for a work permit—it is now a requirement to hold a certificate of sponsorship from a licensed sponsor. The fact that there are fewer than 1,000 sponsors—we know that there are 745—and the expectation that tier 2 alone will have a requirement of at least 14,000 will prove to be insuperable barriers to entry to the country even for those to whom the Government are reasonably welcoming.

For tier 4, is the Minister concerned that, by 16 October this year, only 19 universities had applied for licences to sponsor foreign students, even when, by common consent, overseas students provide a handsome income for those bodies? The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, made the point about our need to bring researchers into this country. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth reminded us of the need to ensure that universities are not hindered in what they do. Tier 4 is due to come into force in March next year. Does the Minister see this as being even faintly likely, in view of the paucity of sponsors?

Tier 5, which enables young people to travel, was discussed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. It will bring people to this country for cultural exchanges, working holidays and sporting events. Temporary workers, such as sportsmen and professional musicians, will have to be sponsored under the licensed sponsorship scheme. Where are the sponsors and who are they? They are not evident at the moment. I am sure that the Minister will remember from his own experience, or that of family or friends, the immense benefit to young people from being able to travel, mix and take part, with people from other countries and cultures, in projects, and have experiences. What a pity if that were denied to them because of the complexity for them and their possible sponsors in the system that has now been dreamt up.

Will the Minister also explain—possibly not for the first time—why these young citizens' visits are limited to those from just four countries: Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand? When will the scheme be extended to other Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries, or is it anticipated that those are the only young people whom we will be able to welcome to our shores?

What is the problem? Much of it seems to be a reluctance by employers to carry out the role of unpaid immigration officers because of the lack of clarity of the full extent of their obligations under the scheme, with the disincentive of having to deal with, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, 130 pages of guidance and the 35-page, 58-question application form. The new points-based system was meant to be clearer and simpler for employers and prospective immigrants, so how is it that the system has been allowed to become so bureaucratic? What ministerial oversight and approval were given to this process, or was it just left to the UK Border Agency to carry on blithely on its own? Will the Minister outline what measures are being taken to promote take-up of sponsorship licences? Are they able to address this dearth of sponsors with sufficient urgency?

Like other noble Lords, we welcome the provisions that increase the age at which a marriage visa licence can be granted from 18 to 21. We hope that that change will help to tackle the problem of British residents being forced against their will into marriage overseas. The evidence seems to show that the vast majority of such cases occurs among those under the age of 21 and decreases from that age onwards. Forced marriage and human trafficking are anathema in this country and we support all measures to counteract them.

However, much less welcome are the changes, mentioned by the right reverend Prelate, which will stop retired persons of independent means who have close connections with this country—that is, family and friends—being able to apply to retire and spend the rest of their lives here, while elderly dependent relatives will still be able to come here if they live alone abroad and are in what are described as compelling compassionate circumstances.

By what logic has it been decided that there should be a difference between those who, late in life, can support themselves financially and wish to come to live close to their relatives but will not be allowed to do so, and those who cannot support themselves and will be dependent on family when they get here but will be allowed to come? The Minister will know that, in response to a question about this matter posed in the consultation carried out by the UK Border Agency—I repeat, the UK Border Agency and not the Government—nearly 60 per cent of the respondents were against this change. Can the Minister tell us what weight was given by the Home Office and the Government to these views before the policy, which now appears in these changes, was adopted?

There are a great many unanswered questions about this wholly unsatisfactory process. We believe that a socially responsible immigration policy needs proper controls to build public confidence in the system, but the flaws in what is happening under the current changes are becoming more and more evident.

We do not want to hold up the proposed changes and, if the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, takes this to a vote, I can tell him that we will abstain. However, we ask the Minister to consider carefully the points that have been made tonight and which, I am sure, have been made to the Home Office in many statements from a great many bodies. Perhaps he will be able to announce some helpful changes today. The most helpful one would be that these changes will be taken back to the Home Office and scrutinised by the department, not by the UK Border Agency. If not, I hope that he will make such an announcement shortly.

There seems to be little virtue in ploughing on regardless with a system about which so many questions are being raised and from which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, there are so many unintended consequences.