I shall speak to amendment No. 38. I was pleased when my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth said that he was persuadable, as it is difficult enough to persuade Ministers to accept amendments without the added problem of trying to persuade my hon. Friends to accept them.
Fundamentally, we seek to achieve the same two things: first, to probe and question the Minister as to why three hours is the correct maximum time to allow for detention by immigration officers, and secondly to suggest alternatives—24 hours in my hon. Friend’s case and eight in mine.
The points that have been made are valid and it is worth exploring what will happen in practice, particularly at smaller ports. The Minister will be as aware as anyone that in the criminal underworld that is involved with illegal immigration, trafficking and so on, it is a given that it is easier to get people into the country through smaller ports and airports than through Heathrow, Waterloo or Gatwick—the big centres through which most people go, which have more people and often newer technology. Given that, it seems overwhelmingly likely that, particularly in some of the more remote ports, a period longer than three hours will be necessary, not least in the perfectly plausible circumstance of many people who need to be detained arriving at once. That sort of thing would rapidly become known about and if it happened once, it would happen again. The people traffickers and smugglers would know that it was what to aim for.
A lot of my complaints about the Bill and a lot of my amendments are attempts to put something concrete in the Bill so that not too much is left to regulations that we have not yet seen and that Parliament therefore cannot scrutinise properly. I am puzzled as to why, in one of the few parts of the Bill in which the Government commit themselves to something—the limit of three hours—it does not seem adequate to perform the function, which the Minister and all of us on the Committee want it to perform, of allowing the designated immigration officers to do their job properly. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere that during the various consultations on the Bill and in the course of the debates on it in the House, we have had no sensible indication of why a period of three hours was chosen.
It is not just a case of there being fewer immigration officers in the more distant and smaller ports; the local police forces in such areas are likely to be more stretched. To continue my litany of plausible examples, it would not be too difficult for somebody who was organising a major people-smuggling operation also to organise a normal criminal incident that would call away large numbers of the local police so that there could not be anyone available within the three hours. The provision would therefore not work. An equally likely scenario is that a large number of suspects would be detained and all be awaiting the attention of one constable, or maybe two, at the same time.
I hope that the Minister will not use the argument that he does not want suspects to be detained for too long. He and I might not have participated from the Front Benches in the debates in question, but our colleagues have participated in many debates in the past 12 months in which, by and large, we have been less keen than the Government on locking people up without charge for long periods. I know that the Minister would like to lock people up for 90 days, but we have managed to keep that down to 28 days so far. I urge him not to use a civil liberties argument about the difference between locking someone up for three hours and doing so for eight hours, as that would be inconsistent with everything that the Government have argued in this field in recent years.
I hope that the Minister will reconsider the matter. He must convince the Committee that a three-hour period is a practical solution, but it does not seem so to me. There will be a range of views on what the practical solution might be but, frankly, three hours seems too short.