Before we begin properly, I have a few preliminary announcements. Members may, if they wish, remove their jackets during the Committee meetings.
Please will all Members ensure that mobile phones, pagers and so on are switched off or switched to silent mode during the Committee meetings?
I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are available in the Room.
Today is only the second occasion on which a Public Bill Committee will hear oral evidence on a Bill. So that everyone is clear about the procedures and what will happen this morning, I will briefly explain what is proposed.
As with a normal Committee, the Committee will first be asked to consider the programme motion. We will then proceed to a motion to report written evidence and then a motion to permit the Committee to deliberate in private in advance of the oral evidence sessions. Those two motions should be formalities. Assuming that the second of these motions has been agreed, the Committee will then move into private session. Once the Committee has deliberated, the witnesses and members of the public will be invited back into the Room and the oral evidence session will commence. If the Committee agrees the programme motion, the Committee will hear oral evidence this week before reverting to more the familiar proceedings of clause by clause scrutiny in subsequent sittings.
We come first to the programme motion, debate on which may continue for up to half an hour. I call the Minister.
I beg to move,
(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday 27th February) meet—
(a) at 4.30 p.m. on Tuesday 27th February;
(b) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.30 p.m. on Thursday 1st March;
(c) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. on Tuesday 6th March;
(d) at 9.00 a.m. and 2.00 p.m. on Thursday 8th March;
(e) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. on Tuesday 13th March;
(f) at 9.00 a.m. and 2.00 p.m. on Thursday 15th March;
(g) at 10.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. on Tuesday 20th March;
(h) at 9.00 a.m. and 2.00 p.m. on Thursday 22nd March;
(2) the Committee shall hear oral evidence in accordance with the following Table;
Tuesday 27th February
Until no later than 1.00 p.m.
Tuesday 27th February
Until no later than 5.30 p.m.
Immigration Law Practitioners Association
Tuesday 27th February
Until no later than 6.30 p.m.
Immigration Advisory Service
Thursday 1st March
Until no later than 9.40 a.m.
National Car Parks
Thursday 1st March
Until no later than 10.25 a.m.
Trades Union Congress; Transport and General Workers’ Union
Thursday 1st March
Until no later than 2.30 p.m.
Professor Ross Anderson, Cambridge University; Phil Booth, National Coordinator, NO2ID
Thursday 1st March
Until no later than 3.30 p.m.
Thursday 1st March
Until no later than 5.00 p.m.
Additional witnesses to be decided by the Committee
(3) proceedings on consideration of the Bill in Committee shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 43; Schedule; Clauses 44 to 46; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(4) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.30 p.m. on Thursday 22nd March.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. I am proud to be one of the first Ministers to be asked to give oral evidence in this constitutional innovation of public evidence sessions preceding our debates on the Bill over the weeks to come. I should also like to thank all members of the Committee in advance for taking part, not just in the debates but in the oral evidence sessions.
The purpose of the Bill is to strengthen our UK borders and our fight against illegal immigration, however it manifests itself. This Bill does not sit on its own. It sits as part of a comprehensive package of reform, which includes a different kind of cross-government strategy to tackle illegal immigration; additional resources to tackle illegal immigration; the use of new technology, including technology to count people in and count people out of the country; and stronger international alliances to tackle illegal immigration. This Bill, the fifth element of that package, provides additional powers for our front-line officers to tackle illegal immigration too.
We have a good range of witnesses in the Committee sittings this week. The usual channels have worked hard to ensure that there is a good balance. We have sought to ensure that the Committee has the benefit of a number of different perspectives, not just from those with a legal training, but from trade union representatives who have particular arguments to make about how we manage immigration and illegal immigration. There is also a wide range of additional witnesses. Although we have not been able to programme them for this week, it is in the Committee’s gift to call them during the course of our proceedings in the weeks to come. I ask the Committee to support the programme motion.
Before I put the question on that motion, I perhaps should have mentioned earlier that while we are in this Room and taking evidence, Members may remain seated. The microphones are set at a lower level, and if those speaking were to stand and sit throughout the proceedings, it would interfere with the broadcasting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. The Programming Sub-Committee left one slot free for additional witnesses, and the Refugee Children’s Consortium has requested an opportunity to present evidence to the Committee. I should like to move an amendment to the programme motion to the effect that it be invited to submit oral evidence.
I beg to move a manuscript amendment:
“In the table, under the last entry for Thursday 1st March, leave out ‘Additional witnesses to be decided by the Committee’ and insert ‘Refugee Children’s Consortium’.”
I echo the Minister’s welcome to you, Mr. Illsley, not just to the Chair of the Committee but to the journey of discovery that I suspect we are on, certainly until we get to grips with the welcome innovation of allowing Committees to question not just Ministers—which will no doubt be entertaining—but expert witnesses from outside. The Minister has set out what he intends to happen with the Bill. It is already clear from the submissions to the Committee by those who are going to give oral evidence, and by many others, that our serious reservations about parts of the Bill are shared by experts in the field. There are clearly deep reservations about this across the spectrum, so the sessions will be useful in that we will be able to hear about them in detail from a large number of witnesses. The amendment is also down in my name and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate. We support the idea of hearing witnesses from the Refugee Children’s Consortium as at this stage of the Bill.
I associate myself with the remark that it is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr. Illsley, and I speak in support of the amendment to the programme motion.
This is not as much of an innovation for me as it appears to be for other members of the Committee, because I served on the Committee considering the Bill that became the Immigration Act 1999. Under the old rules of the House we had the then fairly unusual procedure of evidence-taking sessions beforehand. The present Leader of the House, then the Home Secretary, gave evidence to that Committee. I well remember his saying that he regarded the Bill as the final word. I think that he said that sorting out the immigration system was the greatest challenge then facing him as Home Secretary and that he hoped that the Bill would be the final word.
What appeared to be important then was that different groups should have the opportunity to give evidence, that the Committee should conduct itself at such a pace that it could digest that evidence; and that Ministers should have the opportunity to reflect on what the witnesses had said. My one slight criticism is that we heard some good evidence on that Committee, but unfortunately not all of it—very little of it, in fact—was reflected in changes in the Bill, because the Government became very resistant to changing any dot or comma of it. I hope that this Committee will proceed in such a way and with such timing that the Government can actually think about the evidence that it hears and then make the changes to the Bill that I apprehend may be necessary to make it a better Bill.
I share the view that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley—in fact, you seem to chair every Bill Committee on which I serve. I do not know which of us has drawn the short straw.
I should like to speak against the amendment. I know that we—the Committee and the House—are finding our feet, but the Refugee Children’s Consortium provided written evidence for hon. Members, in UKB 05, which I found very useful. However, I wonder what precedents we are setting, having oral and written evidence. I would like the broadest possible range of evidence available, from a whole host of sources, but I wonder whether we are taking up the Committee’s time when we could be using other avenues to explore and tease out particular aspects of the Bill. As I said, I found the written submission of the Refugee Children’s Consortium extremely useful and informative, but I would feel happier—the Committee might feel happier—if we had another source in that oral evidence slot.
I too welcome the general consensus on getting as wide a range of views and opinions about the Bill as possible. I support my colleague’s amendment. Hearing from the Refugee Children’s Consortium is important, but, given what other hon. Members said earlier, I am sure that they would welcome other organisations as well. We do not seem to have any submissions from Migration Watch, which would obviously take a very different view. Given that all sides of the political spectrum here welcome the idea of diverse opinions coming in, may I suggest that Migration Watch could provide an additional set of witnesses.
On a point of order and to help my hon. Friend, the Committee has the power to move for another evidence session. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will wish to bear that in mind as we make progress. People who might not be available this week might well be available in future weeks.
I welcome you to the Chair of these proceedings, Mr. Illsley. I am minded to contribute to try to clarify what has just happened. The Committee has voted against having oral evidence from the Refugee Children’s Consortium, although the programme motion allows time not only for the Refugee Children’s Consortium, but for other witnesses, should the hon. Member for Hartlepool have desired to put forward alternative witnesses.
We have struck out the opportunity for the Refugee Children’s Consortium to give oral evidence to the Committee for no apparent reason other than to leave early. Under the programme motion as it is now, we will finish at 3.30 pm on Thursday 1 March, with an hour and a half of available, scheduled Committee time and no witnesses, despite the Committee having put them forward. I am surprised at the decision of Government Members to strike out the opportunity for the Refugee Children’s Consortium to give evidence; it has been told that it cannot give evidence without any alternative having been put forward by members of the Committee, which is deeply regrettable.
I echo and amplify my hon. Friend’s words. We have all welcomed the new procedure, which enables a Committee to take evidence from experts to improve the scrutiny of the Bill, yet the Government’s first act, in one of the first Bills to use that procedure, is to reduce the opportunity of the Committee to take evidence. As a window to the Government’s real attitude to scrutiny, that cannot be improved; their first act is to reduce the possibility of independent evidence and improved scrutiny of Bills. That sets an appalling precedent. Presumably, having tested out such an approach, the Government will have the power in all future Bills to strike down individual witnesses whom they might find inconvenient. The words of the Minister, of the Leader of the House and of other Ministers, who have welcomed this innovation to improve the scrutiny of Bills, have been shown to be hollow. The Minister and his team have let down Parliament this morning.
I welcomed the innovation and congratulated the Government on producing it. I object, as anyone who cares about parliamentary scrutiny should, to the Government’s first act of the Committee, which reduces the ability to scrutinise the Bill. If he cared about that when he came to scrutinise legislation in Committee, he too would want to fill the time that we have for available witnesses with contributions from experts. It is regrettable that the Government should foist such censorship on people who have great expertise in the field.
I should like to express mild surprise at the pose that Opposition Members are striking. I thought that in previous discussions, we agreed a principle that it was important for Back Benchers to have selectability to table amendments, which may or may not entail calling witnesses. There are a large number of witnesses who could throw further light on our deliberations, not only Migration Watch, whose members are unfortunately out of the country, but organisations such as the CBI, which has a perspective to add, and the east London community organisations that represent migrants’ rights. There is a wide range of others as well.
I would like to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Hertsmere. It is important that the Committee has the opportunity to digest the evidence presented to it, as it goes along, and the flexibility and recourse to table amendments to summon additional witnesses. I think that that principle is extremely important and, subject to your guidance, Mr. Illsley, one that is already in place.
I am grateful to the Minister for his kind words. I hope that he will be equally kind on my second proposition, which was that Ministers should consider evidence given and make changes to the legislation. I shall be holding a marker down for that and looking forward to seeing the changes as they come along.
On the point about reflection, I say this to the Minister: I am the first to admit that I do not have the greatest powers of reflection in the world, but I wonder whether it will take me so long to reflect on the matters before us that I will need an extra hour and a half on Thursday 1 March. After that, I shall have time to think about matters and table amendments. I think that I am right in saying that we will now finish at half-past 3 on 1 March. Will the Minister be kind enough to tell us what the magic is in 3.30 pm?
The House sits until 6 o’clock on Thursdays these days, I think, when we are here. We will not need that extra hour and a half, or two and a half hours, of additional thinking time then because we will have so much time for that afterwards. Why can we not use that valuable time to take further evidence? What is the magic in 3.30 pm? We have adopted this evidence-taking procedure, so our constituents will ask why we are not prepared to work a little harder and have an extra hour and a half of evidence taking. We might hear some vital evidence that will make a difference. I do not see the magic in 3.30 pm. Will the Minister explain why it is necessary to finish at that time and why we cannot have an extra hour and a half?
On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. Will you guide me? Is it still within the power of Committee members to table amendments seeking to call additional witnesses?
Yes. It is within the power of the Committee, up until 3.30 pm on Thursday 1 March, to make an amendment to bring in another witness for that particular sitting. All the Committee has done this morning is to reject an amendment scheduling a witness for that particular sitting. It is for the Committee to make amendments as it sees fit in regard to that sitting. My understanding is that the Committee can decide or deliberate on motions to bring in extra witnesses at any time during deliberation of the Bill.
I am disappointed by the attitude of Government Members. Four sittings have been allocated for witnesses. My understanding from the meeting on the programme motion was that there would be an opportunity today for Members to suggest additional witnesses, if we are to have one on that Thursday afternoon. We at least need to find out if they are available and make that decision today. I admit that Members can move additional meetings during the Committee stage but presumably, given that there are no more special sessions programmed, that will be at the expense of debating time.
We have an opportunity this afternoon to propose witnesses, so if the Government are not prepared to accept that witness, which I regret, I shall propose a second witness. I think that it is important that we make full use of the time available for witnesses. If we are not going to do that, we are showing that this process is nothing more than window dressing. I would like to move that Manchester Airport Security be invited on Thursday afternoon at 3.30.
I understood from our discussions last night that you would permit Members to bring forward suggestions this morning, Mr. Illsley. Otherwise, we are just throwing away a session in which we could have heard from witnesses.
On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. As you have just made clear, given that it is possible to table manuscript amendments for new witnesses to be added, either on Thursday or in other sittings, can you give guidance as to whether it is possible to ask the Committee to consider the Refugee Children’s Consortium again, or is it now ruled out of court? I would like to know whether the Government have a particular prejudice against this group of children’s charities, or they are just trying to get away early.
On a point of order, is it possible to propose a manuscript amendment now for Thursday 1 March? At the moment, we have an artificial break at 3.30 pm, when the House will be sitting until 6.30 pm. We can still have additional witnesses, to be decided by the Committee, but it seems sensible not to have Professor Ross Anderson and Liberty artificially constrained. I wish to propose an amendment, on Thursday 1 March, under the witness listing for Professor Ross Anderson and Phil Booth, to delete “2.30 pm” and insert “3 pm”, and under Liberty, to delete “3.30 pm” and insert “5 pm”. At least then, Mr. Illsley, we will have the opportunity to establish whether the Government are simply taking the opportunity to leave early, or whether they are actually interested in scrutiny.
Further to that point of order, is it your recollection, Mr. Illsley, as it is mine, that when we discussed the last sitting in the programming sub-committee, its purpose was to ensure that the usual channels did not produce a prescriptive list of witnesses, and that an opportunity should be given to Back-Bench Members to come up with people that they would like to see? Furthermore, part of the reason for leaving that sitting at the end of Thursday was that issues may arise during the Committee’s deliberations today. We have not yet started that deliberation, and yet we are seeking to fill that time.
We are not necessarily filling the time. The purpose of the amendment is merely to remove the buffer at 3.30 pm. It is entirely in the gift of the Committee to finish earlier. Indeed, if the evidence from Professor Anderson and Mr Booth comes to a natural conclusion before 3 pm, and that of Liberty before 5 pm, that is the position.
The procedure would be for the hon. Gentleman to suggest an amendment; it is then up to the Chairman whether to select it. My ruling is that I am not prepared to select this amendment now, but it is open to the Committee to make an amendment at the beginning of the next sitting, or in any other sitting.