I feel compelled to re-welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley, as we return to a comfortably old-fashioned way of scrutiny after last week’s exciting innovation. I am not being satirical; it is an extremely good innovation, for which I am happy to commend the Leader of the House. Some of my remarks on these amendments arise from the evidence that we heard. It would be extremely useful to show that taking witness evidence helps us to have better debates during the scrutiny stage of the Bill.
Both the amendments are to do with ensuring that immigration officers, who will have new powers under the clause, are aided in doing their new jobs correctly, are properly trained and have the experience and skills to meet the new challenges that the Government are putting to them. Amendment No. 36 would allow the Secretary of State to designate immigration officers for the purposes of detaining people under clause 2 for a minimum specified period of six months. That would ensure that the designation could not be made for a short period, which would make the officers less able to do the job. Amendment No. 35 would require the Secretary of State to set out a mechanism for the inspection of new immigration officers. As we heard from a number of witnesses, the oversight of the new powers that the officers are to be given is of particular concern to practitioners in the field.
The need for such an amendment is backed up by some of the written evidence that we received. I was struck by the remarks from Liberty that once an immigration officer has been designated, he or she will enjoy considerable power, covering not only detention but search and the use of reasonable force. Indeed, anybody who absconds from the custody of an immigration officer who holds the new powers will be committing an offence. Liberty acknowledges that there might be occasions when no police constable is present on which it is appropriate to detain and search. It also notes, crucially to the amendments, that the extension is part of a general trend to grant powers traditionally reserved for the police to those who have not received police training. Indeed, the Government state in background notes that a person must be fit and proper and suitably trained.
In this and other amendments we are seeking to strengthen and tighten the definitions. Clearly, if the extra powers given to immigration officers are to work, they will require substantial extra training, probably at considerable expense. Therefore, amendment No. 36 seeks to protect the taxpayer, inter alia, by seeking to ensure that there is no great turnover of designated officers and that people trained at public expense are not designated officers for only a short period. I imagine that that is in no way the Minister’s intention, but for the reasons I have outlined, it would be useful to have provision in the Bill to ensure that once someone is a designated immigration officer, they are expected to be so for a considerable period. Throughout the public service and in the private sector, anyone who has managed an organisation will recognise the benefits associated with continuity of service. In particular, when we are asking people to do not only a difficult job, but a difficult job that they have not been asked to do before, with all the powers that they have been given, maintaining the benefits of continuity of service seems particularly important.
I was struck by a concern pointed out to me by an immigration lawyer, which was not just the cost of training, but the availability and suitability of staff. She was particularly concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers and the need to monitor the scheme very carefully in order to ensure fair treatment; she was worried about the assumption of criminality that seems to infuse that approach, although that debate is for another part of the Bill. She made one important point that affects the issues raised by the amendments: the fact that the possibility of criminal charges means that the immigration officer should be working with the criminal standard of a presumption of innocence, rather than with the current code followed in immigration matters, which works on the balance of probabilities.
Again, that individual issue is not a matter for the amendments, but I think it illustrates an important point. These challenges will be new ones for immigration officers. It would therefore be unfair for the legislation to ask the officers to proceed with the new powers without expecting that they will do so for a considerable period and also, under amendment No. 36, an awareness that they will be properly inspected.
I should like to pray in aid some of the oral evidence that we heard from Mr. Richard Thomas in our second sitting:
“If immigration officers were to be given these powers, the only benefit would be if they were properly trained. If there were to be specialist people at ports who had a specialist understanding of the needs of foreign nationals who are entering and of the certain circumstances that arise, there would be a benefit from it. There is not a benefit from creating an ad hoc further police service at the ports when those people do not have the appropriate training.”——[Official Report, UK Borders Public Bill Committee, 27 February 2007; c. 40-41.]
I think that that is probably true, and moving specifically to amendment No. 36, it is also true that the people exercising the new powers need to know that someone is looking at them. As I said, the Government have stated that such a person must be “fit and proper”, and the Bill is awarding to immigration officers some of the strongest policing-type powers that can be afforded to an individual. On amendment No. 35, the explanatory notes make no reference to any sort of public accountability or redress for people who feel aggrieved or have complaint, which is why we feel that there should be a mechanism for the inspection of new immigration officers.
The whole Committee will be aware of the sensitivity of immigration as a public policy issue. If we are to regain confidence in a system that has clearly lost public confidence, people will need to know that the system is fair to those who go through it, robust enough to protect our borders and well managed. The vast majority of people will wish to see that those who arrive at our ports seeking to enter are decently treated. An inspectorate along the lines of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary would go some way towards instilling confidence in that respect.
I am aware that the Minister has proposed bringing together various regulatory bodies that affect the immigration service, but I hope that he recognises that the amendments are designed to improve the Bill. If he accepts them, they will make it clear that the immigration officers, who have been given the new powers, will be expected to exercise them for some time and so improve their own professionalism in the knowledge that there is a properly funded, properly constituted inspection authority that will reveal regularly to the public how good their performance is. In that spirit of helpfulness, I commend the amendments to the Committee.