Clause 20

Part of UK Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 15th March 2007.

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Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Minister of State (Home Office) (Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality) 2:00 pm, 15th March 2007

I will respond to the points raised as quickly as I can. I suppose that I should acknowledge the movement in Opposition policy. It would be churlish of me not to welcome the progress over the past 15 months. Only 15 months ago, we were hearing about policies for the renegotiation of the Geneva convention, the provision of offshore processing centres for refugees, a ring of steel—an idea that lasted about 15 seconds when the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) tried to defend it to John Humphrys—and the James review and slide 105, proposing to cut 50 per cent. of the immigration and nationality directorate’s budget.

That the Opposition have moved from the ring of steel to concrete plans regarding disorder at the border is some progress, but not perhaps as much as the hon. Member for Ashford would like to present. There are, however, some quite serious issues that we need to tease out. I have always been clear in the debates on the subject that I retain an open mind about the creation of a single border force in the future, but I have said consistently that I am yet to be persuaded by the proposals or that now is the right time.

The hon. Member for Ashford this morning prayed in aid some of the evidence that was presented by the Home Affairs Committee in 2000. No doubt, like me, he has read the evidence from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which said that, although a single border agency made broad strategic sense—I think that that was the phrase that it used—it was uncertain of the cost and benefits. There are potential benefits in this realm, and the question is whether there is a different way of achieving them.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the need to attack organised crime harder. We heard oral evidence suggesting that that was extremely important. Tackling that kind of crime is precisely why we set up the Serious Organised Crime Agency and pulled agencies together. As we heard in oral evidence, 25 per cent. of its budget is devoted to tackling illegal immigration.

On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) asked whether there should be a greater alignment of powers. There is no legal barrier to aligning those powers. Section 8(2) of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 allows Treasury Ministers to designate Customs powers to immigration officers and, indeed, to anybody they class as a proper officer. Paragraph 1(1) of schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971 allows the Home Secretary to confer immigration powers on other people. Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000 allows immigration officers, police and Customs officers to act as an officer under the relevant schedules. With that power, we are trying to align police powers with those of officers on the border.

Therefore, there is no legal barrier to the alignment of powers. That leaves us with the question of whether there should be greater operational alignment of activities. I think that the answer to that is yes, which is precisely why there is a programme in place to help to deliver that.

The hon. Member for Peterborough raised an important question, which he put intelligently: how do we co-ordinate the intelligence that needs to be shared  between the different agencies? If he has not yet been, I invite him to visit the joint border operations centre at Heathrow, which brings together four or five different agencies to screen intelligence from airlines. It has already provided us with 8,000 alerts and something like 800 arrests and is an excellent example of, asSir Andrew Green called it, the capability of British agencies to work together very well. There are already parts of the country where one can see what is, in effect, a single agency providing the primary line, with referral to specialist, secondary-line capabilities where needed. At Poole or Coquelles, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs lead the search, bringing in immigration officers where appropriate. At Blackpool, the police are in the lead, bringing in HMRC where appropriate. At Gatwick, immigration officers operate as Customs officers, referring back to HMRC as the secondary line where appropriate.

Many of these changes are already seen in practice. The benefits, therefore, could potentially be achieved by a different course. We have to weigh some of the risks against the changes. I have consistently said that, at a time when the terrorist threat to this country is severe, we risk a distraction if we reorganise; when we want focus, we will be asking people to reapply for their jobs. That is why I thought my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley was right to quote Sir Andrew Green:

“The last thing that it”— the Home Office

“should do at this juncture is have a reorganisation of that kind”.——[Official Report, UK Borders Public Bill Committee, 13 March 2007; c. 282, Q349.]

As Sir Andrew put it, organisations “are not Meccano”.