Clause 20

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

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 2:15 pm, 15th March 2007

If my hon. Friend wishes to intervene on me, I am sure he will find some sympathy.

Half the Minister’s speech was quite serious. The other half was just garbage and not worthy of the proverbial wet Tuesday night in midlands towns that one of my hon. Friends got in trouble for talking about. I shall deal with the serious parts of the Minister’s speech. First, would the split in the Home Office that its Ministers, particularly the Home Secretary himself, have been touting around the media—and, I understand, Cabinet Committees—be relevant to a unified border force and the safety of our borders? Of course it would. The Minister’s whole argument, inasmuch as there was one in the serious parts of his speech, was that this is not the right time for such a force, yet the biggest change in the Home Office’s history is being touted at the same time. I gently suggest to him that that is not a solid piece of ground on which he can stand.

I know how much the Minister enjoys praying in aid Sir Andrew Green—he did it about five times in a 10-minute speech, struggling to find anyone else to support his point of view. Good for him; he hasSir Andrew Green on-side on this particular narrow issue. Nevertheless, Sir Andrew’s point is undermined by what is happening in the Home Office at the moment. Even if we do not get the Home Secretary’s gleaming vision of an organisation split in two, so that the police service and the Prison Service end up in different empires, which seems to be a recipe for even bigger disasters with non-communication than the onesthat we have seen in the past few months, we will still have the Minister’s radical reorganisation of the immigration and nationality directorate, with which he is happily proceeding at the same time as he is prepared to stand in this Committee and say, “We must not contemplate reorganisation because it will get in the way of doing the job.” On any level, his argument is incoherent.

Having said that, I was delighted to hear the Minister say that he will keep an open mind on our proposal. That is significant progress because I can sniff a U-turn months or years before it happens. If the Government wish to take on board more Conservative ideas, we are always happy to provide them and to continue to make the political weather during this Parliament, as we are doing. Genuine progress has been made because we think that the issue before us is important and that our proposal would make a big difference.

I was grateful that during the course of the Minister’s speech, he made it clear that there was no legal barrier to combining the various powers, which lies at the heart of our proposal. He said also that there  was no operational barrier. Indeed, he gave helpful examples of where such a process can happen now. Any practical arguments, therefore, against our proposal have been blown away by him this afternoon.

The Minister mentioned the importance of SOCA. I agree that it was a good idea to set up that agency—we supported it—to fight serious and organised crime. He will be aware that among the senior police officers who supported a border force, there were murmurs of surprise because SOCA did not include one. He said that, in effect, in many parts of the country we already have a single agency on the front line. That is good, but we should follow through that logic and make it more coherent.

The Minister made some semi-serious points about possible deficiencies in the drafting of new clause 4. We would be happy to take amendments. So far, the Government have tabled a lot of amendments to the Bill, so if they want to table some to our new clause, they may—we are not proud. We want legislation to be as good as it can be. If he wants to do that, therefore, I am sure that we can come back to it at a later stage.

Let us consider the weight of evidence from those who know about such matters. Almost all are in favour of the proposal. In what I thought was a slightly half-hearted attempt to oppose it, the Minister was forced to rely on some fairly cheap soundbites and, indeed, at the start, on a speech no doubt prepared for Labour candidates during the 2005 election. I sensed that even he was embarrassed about having to deliver it in 2007 in this rather different political landscape.

I am now satisfied that there is no substantive Government argument against our proposal and, therefore, commend the amendment to the Committee.