Clause 16

Part of UK Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 13th March 2007.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 12:30 pm, 13th March 2007

It was clear, both in reading the written evidence that was submitted to the Committee and over several sessions of oral evidence that we have taken, that clause 16 was one of the most difficult and controversial in the Bill. In that spirit, I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Enfield, North, who will respond to this debate. Clearly, she has been landed with this particular hot potato. Plus ça change, she may well feel.

The three amendments in my name, and that of my hon. Friend, all seek to tie down whether this clause will be practical or unduly onerous on large groups of people. The Committee will have heard what the hon. Member for Rochdale has just said, particularly about its potential effect on children. These amendments look more widely at anyone who would suddenly find restrictions on them that were not there before, as a result of the clause.

On the detail of the amendments, amendmentNo. 25 simply seeks that

“any condition imposed upon residence must be reasonable in all circumstances”.

That reflects the worries, which I am sure the Minister will have absorbed from the written and oral evidence, that the clause’s potential for putting onerous restrictions on people is very great. We have seen not only those fears, but vagueness in other areas around residency requirements. For example, some sex offenders have got round that by putting down patently ridiculous addresses such as “the woods”. No one  would want that failure in the system to be replicated in residency requirements imposed by this Bill.

I hope that if the Minister accepts some or all of our amendments it will reassure those who think that the conditions are onerous and too widespread, and encourage the Government to ensure that the regulations are effective. Any accommodation included under the residency requirements must be inhabitable and conducive to the individual’s safety, and I hope that the Minister will address those practical matters.

Amendment No. 85 is a probing amendment of the serious consequences of the clause. At the outer extreme of the fears expressed about the clause is that it could be used for internal control by insisting that some people have to live in certain places simply because of their immigrant status. I dare say that Ministers would regard that as unacceptable; I am aware that one may wish to have strict controls over where certain groups in society can live, but I cannot believe they would wish to apply such controls to anyone who has limited leave to remain in this country. That will include many thousands of people who have lived here for a long time and lead blameless and extremely useful lives. People fear that the clause as drafted would have a serious effect on them, which cannot be the intention of the Bill.

The clause would allow a Government to use the Bill for internal immigration controls. Although reporting to an immigration officer may in some cases be sensible for some categories of people, this blanket approach smacks of an attempt to control the whereabouts of people who lead blameless lives and who are accepted by the authorities as being in this country legally.

It is not too difficult to imagine scenarios in which the clause would have a very serious effect on people’s lives. For example, a person who has secured employment in a distant rural area and is required to report to an immigration centre may find that the nearest one is 50 or 60 miles away. The proposal to set up centres for passport interviews has already provoked resistance in rural areas because of the travelling distance it will involve, the time it will take and the inconvenience it will cause.

The amendment draws attention to the fact that the clause may affect yet another group of people in that respect. Anyone who takes employment in a rural area is statistically unlikely to be highly paid, and therefore unlikely to have access to a car. They will therefore have to rely on public transport in areas where it is least available and reliable. People in rural areas with low-paid jobs who are least able to afford it will have to take days off just to report to immigration centres. The Minister will argue that that is absurd and I agree that it is. During the passage of this Bill we should think about whether we want to impose such conditions.

If the point of the clause is to give the Government the power to follow and track those who give them particular concern, I would have a good deal of sympathy with that policy. But the clause does not say that. It is so widely drawn that it does not restrict itself to that laudable activity but goes well beyond and will affect people whom no sensible Government will want to spend time, resources and effort following round the country or keeping address records for. I hope the Minister can consider those points.

Amendment No. 86 reopens the debate about commencement provisions from the other side. The Minister made the point in a previous debate that he sympathised with the idea of having a proper code of conduct before certain provisions of the Bill are put in place. What we are saying about amendment No. 86 is that the same thing should apply after the legislation is passed. We are aware that there is considerable public concern surrounding these measures—in particular the sweeping powers within the measures that are included in this particular clause. It seems sensible from all points of view that Parliament should be informed how the system is working once it is in operation, which parts of it are or are not functioning and what the Government suggest should be changed. This is good from Parliament’s point of view—it will demonstrate that our scrutiny of legislation does not have to end just because the legislation is on the statute book and that we are actually concerned with the practical impact of this legislation on the daily lives of many thousands of people. But it will also act as a useful corrective for Ministers and their officials, becauseif they know that a public report will have to be made 12 months after the enactment of a particular piece of legislation, that would serve to sharpen up the act of everyone involved in the passage of the legislation and its implementation.

If I may tread on delicate ground, I would suggest that this is particularly appropriate for the Home Office at this stage in its evolution, because—I will not quote the Home Secretary on the IND again, but Ministers will recognise what I am talking about—there is a degree of public doubt about the ability of the Home Office to operate large-scale change effectively. It would be a gesture of self-confidence by Ministers to say that they were quite happy for Parliament to return tothe subject and to have a public report put before it12 months after the enactment. There would be practical consequences as well, because if my fears are realised and certain people are unable to take up work because of the requirements under the residency terms of this clause, Parliament and the British people should know about that because it would be an important feature in the wider debate about immigration.

There has been some public movement on the debate. A few years ago there was a feeling that people were coming to this country to live off benefits; even those who are most hostile to immigration have moved away from that and are now worried about people coming here to work. If we find—as I suspect we may—that we are passing legislation that makes it more difficult for those who are in this country legally to work, it is worth having that reported on as that would be a perverse effect which I am sure the Minister does not want.

There are a number of other human rights points, to which I hope we can return in the clause stand part debate. These specific amendments seek to address some of the fears of the groups that have scrutinised this clause. I hope the Minister can look on them sympathetically.