I recall that earlier today the Minister said that we do not like to lock people up without charge, and there was some discussion as to whether one side of the House or the other prefers locking people up for long periods of time without charge. This discussion is, of course, about something different, because the amendment relates to locking up for longer people who have been found guilty of something, and I am entirely in favour of that.
The Bill is a reflection of a problem that we have in this country, which is that too many people are coming here under false pretences. That prevents us from giving support, which we all agree should be given, to those who come here as asylum seekers fleeing genuine persecution and torture. All hon. Members want to help those people, but it is becoming difficult to do so, because so many other people come here for economic reasons and garb themselves in the mantle of asylum seekers, when they are in fact economic migrants. When they come here as economic migrants, they do everything in their power to stay here. On occasion, that means absconding, assaulting immigration officers and obstructing the work of immigration officers.
I saw such things happen when I attended a joint raid by immigration officers and police on a farm in Monmouthshire. Before we arrived, the officers predicted that everyone would run and that anyone who was grabbed would prove to be violent. Fortunately, they were slightly wrong on the second point, because although there was a lot of struggling, nobody was assaulted. Everyone ran and tried to get away, however, because they all knew that they had very little to lose.
I tabled these amendments because it is important that we send out a strong message that we are not prepared to tolerate any longer those who come here, work illegally and prevent us from giving aid to genuine asylum seekers. There has been too much of it, and that is also true of assaults on immigration officers. I find it extraordinary that the Bill sets a limit of just 51 weeks on a term of imprisonment, when the Government know full well that under current legislation it takes52 weeks for the automatic deportation procedures to be triggered. Surely, if we support our immigration officers, as we have all said that we do, we, as politicians, should say to them that we will send out the firm message that anyone who assaults them will spend more than 51 weeks in prison and that by doing so they will be responsible for triggering their own automatic deportation orders. We should not be willing to tolerate those who break the rules, which is why I have tabled these amendments, and I hope that hon. Members will see fit to support them.
I am very much with my hon. Friend and his sentiments on the amendments, which are worthy of serious consideration. I hope that the Minister will give the spirit of the amendments particularly serious thought in this case.
I shall turn first to amendment No. 2, which seeks to add automatic deportation to the possible punishments of somebody who is convicted of an offence of absconding from detention or assaulting or obstructing an immigration officer. My hon. Friend’s sentiment is worthy and I am with him in spirit. However, there may be a problem. As I understand the basis on which the Minister described clauses 1 and 2, the amendment would relate to United Kingdom citizens who were suspected of offences as much as to foreign citizens. Much as my hon. Friend and I would want to deport UK citizens who commit offences, I am not sure whether it would be practical to do so—first, we would have to find somewhere to deport them. I am not sure that I am with him on automatic deportation, but he has raised an important point.
There would be scope for amending the measure to make the person liable for deportation, rather than automatic deportation, as one of the possible punishments that they could face. If deportation was merely a possible sentence, rather than an automatic one, it could be used against a foreign citizen who had committed one of the relevant offences, and that additional punishment would be appropriate in the circumstances. If the Minister will not accept my hon. Friend’s amendment or the changed form that I have just suggested, will he tell us whether a person who commits an offence under clause 3(1) would be liable for deportation as the law stands?
The second point that I want the Minister to address relates to amendment No. 3, and I share my hon. Friend’s sentiments on that, too. I ask the Minister to justify why the Government have chosen the unusual maximum sentence of imprisonment of 51 weeks. I do not want to be in the position of asking “why” all the time—why this, or why that?—but 51 weeks is a curious figure to choose. I am not familiar with 51 weeks as a possible sentence for other offences. What is the magic in 51 weeks? Why not have the maximum sentence as one year, which is the maximum sentence for many different offences?
I support my hon. Friend’s wish to increase the maximum sentence, not only because—as he has already said, very eloquently—if it were increased, it would make the person eligible for automatic deportation, which is important, but because it is important to mark offences against public servants with a longer sentence of imprisonment and a stronger penalty than would otherwise be the case. In the debates on the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006—I think that that is relevant, because I went through the same arguments then—I proposed a scheme of additional aggravated offences, where an offence of assault or another offence causing harm was directed against a public servant, such as a doctor, nurse, railway worker, bus conductor or anyone else providing a service to the public, and an immigration officer would fall within that general definition of a public servant.
It is an important principle that when someone commits an ordinary criminal offence against a public servant, the fact that it is being committed against a public servant—someone who is exposed to danger while providing a service to the public, which itself may be interfered with by the offence—the person who commits that offence should face a more serious sentence. In practice, the courts often do that and regard it as an aggravating feature of an offence that it is committed against a public servant. There is a lot to be said for formalising that process within the law, making it absolutely clear to everybody and sending out a strong signal that offences against public servants are serious offences that will attract more serious sentences.
Quite simply, I want to see posters going up in ports that tell people who are dealing with immigration officers that somebody who assaults an immigration officer will be subject to a maximum sentence that is longer than 51 weeks and will also be eligible for deportation. Such posters would serve as a warning and protect immigration officers, who do such a good job for us all.
I ask the Minister to bear those sentiments in mind and to explain how he would otherwise give additional protection to immigration officers through the provisions in the Bill. Specifically, I would like him to answer this question: by how much more does the sentence outlined here increase the sentence that someone would face for assaulting an immigration officer, compared with the sentence for someone else committing a different type of offence of assault?
I have listened to what the two hon. Gentlemen have said about the amendments, and I believe that they are in danger of attributing to the Bill a range of faults and misdemeanours that might apply to our immigration system in general.
We need to go back to clause 1 to see what we are dealing with, which is a very narrow power—an extension of the immigration officer’s existing power to detain someone at a port. Whether or not there are too many asylum seekers in this country, and whether or not those people are clogging up the system and causing problems for genuine asylum seekers, is, in my view, totally irrelevant. We are dealing with a situation where someone fails to stop when a designated immigration officer asks them to do so and then commits an offence against that immigration officer. As the hon. Member for Hertsmere has said, such people may well be British nationals. It is clearly nonsense to talk about deportation, if it means sending someone back to Liverpool, Birmingham or wherever for committing a misdemeanour. We must concentrate on the law that we are being asked to consider, so that does not work.
If we are talking about increasing the offence, there are already sufficient powers on the statute book. For example, I believe that if someone physically assaults an immigration officer, they can be charged and dealt with under existing laws. Will the Minister confirm that?
I shall ask the Minister to answer that. As I do not normally deal with Home Office matters, I cannot claim to have a great deal of knowledge of them. Clearly, we are talking about somebody who has absconded and who has assaulted or obstructed an officer. For what we are discussing here, I think that a fine or imprisonment would be adequate. If someone goes beyond that though, I suggest that alternative laws would apply.
I rise briefly to say that the sentiments behind the amendments in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth are entirely right and have been expressed eloquently by him and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere. It is useful occasionally for legislation to make clear a widespread sentiment—in this case, the sentiment that it is completely unacceptable to use violence against public servants, such as immigration officers. That is very important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has pointed out the possible technical wrinkle that the proposal might apply to British citizens as well. However, I am unclear about whether my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth would want to deport British citizens who assault immigration officers.
It is tempting to explore whether they could be sent to the Gobi desert—I expect that the Minister with responsibility for tourism will be writing to me. However, I accept that there might be practical difficulties with amendment No. 2. Will you advise me, Mr. Amess, on whether my other amendment can stand alone?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his query. Indeed, while I speak you might have time to consult on it, Mr. Amess.
In all seriousness, we should consider the danger in which we ask many public servants to put themselves. The technicalities aside, the thought behind the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend is good and sensitive.
I, too, associate myself with many of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Monmouth. It is right and appropriate that when we ask our public servants to place themselves in harm’s way and to undertake a difficult job with the professionalism that we see day in, day out in our immigration service, we should also send clear signals backed by sanctions should violence be exercised against them. However, I shall highlight a number of small issues that suggest that the hon. Gentleman ought to withdraw his amendment. Of course, a longer debate will follow in a few weeks’ time, when we reach the clause relating to automatic deportation, so we will have an opportunity to come back to this.
I want to make two points. First, the offences set out in clause 3(1) include not only assault, but absconding and obstructing. The effect of the amendment would be to ensure automatic deportation, even for someone who has absconded and also for someone who has simply obstructed an immigration officer in the exercise of their power. If an individual who has been asked where they came from simply replies, “I’m not going to tell you anything”, it could be deemed to be obstruction. Under these amendments, that would result in automatic deportation. I accept that many of us in the Committee would see that as an entirely appropriate response, but we may run into arguments about proportionality slightly further downstream.
Secondly, the amendments would apply to a British citizen, which is obviously problematic. As someone who was born in Liverpool, I would see no problems in being deported back there, but the implementation and execution of such sanctions could raise problems. By way of reassurance for the hon. Gentleman, I shall make three arguments.
First, the proposed provisions on automatic deportation later in the Bill will not apply simply to those individuals who have been sentenced to12 months’ imprisonment, because they will also apply to individuals who have committed an offence listed in section 72 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Furthermore, they will apply to individuals who have been recommended for deportation by the court and individuals who are deemed non-conducive to the public good by the Home Secretary.
There are a number of other ways to secure the outcome that the hon. Gentleman seeks, which is, perhaps, a useful debate that we can have when we reach the relevant clauses. It is still open to the sentencing court to recommend somebody for deportation, if they have committed an offence of assault, but to cast the sanctions so widely as to encompass both those who abscond and those who obstruct might be going slightly too far. I am happy to return to that point in our debate on automatic deportation.
Secondly, the sanctions that we have proposed are very much in line with the sanctions that have been implemented to cover assaults on other public services in similar lines of work. There are, of course, a number of different definitions of assault—for example, common assault in common law—and there are a number of offences under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The sanctions vary, depending on the severity of the assault. I would be happy to write to members of the Committee on that point, if that would be helpful.
I am grateful to the Minister for that offer and look forward to receiving his letter. Can he tell us whether my impression that clause 3(1)(b) refers to the offence of common assault when it is committed against an immigration officer is correct? If actual bodily harm is included in that, we would appreciate hearing from him, too. Will he tell us what the normal sentence for common assault is in other circumstances, as compared with the sentence of 51 weeks here?
I shall be happy to include some reflections in my letter, if hon. Members would find that helpful. The point that I want to make, which the hon. Member for Hertsmere made earlier, concerns the differences or similarities between the sanctions listed here and the sanctions that are available for assault on other public officials in a similar line of work. For example, the sanction for the offence of assaulting someone who works for HMRC is 51 weeks and/or level 5. Similar sanctions are in place for authorised search officers, and similar sanctions are detailed for assaults on police officers and traffic officers.
We did not seek to invent a level of sanctions for that event; we rooted them in the sort of sanctions now in place for assault on other public servants who put themselves in harm’s way in the line of their work, day in and day out. I hope that the hon. Member for Monmouth takes some reassurance from the fact that it is a debate to which we will return. There are similar ways of achieving the outcome that he seeks, and I look forward to the debate.
I found some reassurance in that. Clearly one would not want to see people deported for assaulting immigration officers but not police officers. On that basis, I will happily withdraw the amendment. I look forward to a discussion later this month onthe length of imprisonment for which automatic deportation should occur. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Many of the arguments for a reasoned withdrawal of these amendments are not dissimilar to those proposed a moment ago. There are three points, which I will rehearse again for the Committee. First, the offences that are set out in clause 3(1) include assault, but also include absconding from and obstructing an immigration officer. One of the effects of the amendment would be to cast automatic deportation as a sanction for any one of those three offences.
I am certain in my own mind that we should send a clear signal to those who commit a serious crime and break our laws that they will face the sanction of automatic mandatory deportation. However, there is a question over whether automatic deportation is the right sanction for somebody who has committed the offence of obstructing an immigration officer, which is the offence detailed under clause 3(1)(c). As I said a moment ago, somebody could effectively be prosecuted for the offence of obstructing an immigration officer simply by presenting themselves at the desk at the port and refusing to co-operate with the immigration officer. I could easily foresee a situation where a successful prosecution was mounted for obstruction in such a case and the amendment as drafted would result in the automatic deportation of that individual. I am not often accused of making arguments for a proportionate use of force, but in this case there is a question mark in my mind about whether that is a proportionate sanction for such an offence.
The second point is that, as I said a moment ago, we did not just make up the sanctions listed for this offence, but rooted them in the well-established tradition of sanctions for the offence of assaulting a warranted officer, whether a traffic officer or a police officer or somebody from the HMRC. I am uncomfortable about driving a coach and horses through that tradition.
The third point is that the Government will want to prosecute such offences quickly and the amendment would make it difficult for those cases to be tried in a magistrates court. The sanctions as drafted would mean that cases must be committed to a Crown court, which may result in justice not being as swift as we would desire in all circumstances—particularly in relation to the offences of absconding from detention or obstructing an immigration officer. Both sides of the Committee may agree with that analysis.
Such debates are important, but it may be better to have them when we get to the clauses on automatic deportation. Many of the arguments for the withdrawal of these amendments are the same as those made on the previous amendment. The spirit of the debate is absolutely right, but it may be better to have it later in our proceedings.
I am grateful for the points that the Minister has made—particularly on the necessity for Crown court trials when sentences are over a year, which I had assumed was the relevant cut-off being applied. I am not sure in the aggregate whether that is an overwhelming argument against allowing sentences of more than a year when the Government are using that 12 months as a cut-off point in the powers that it seeks under clause 28. There are other ways to cut this particular cake and one could set a different minimum for the application. As the Minister said, it may well be sensible to return to this subject, possibly at greater length, during our discussions on clause 28. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.