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Part of UK Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 20th March 2007.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 12:30 pm, 20th March 2007

Amongst others, none of whom is particularly relevant on a regional basis. I am glad that we have had that explanation from the Minister. I have thought all along that regionalisation was a huge diversion from the reforms that were needed in the IND. The Minister’s comments this morning rather confirmed that. What is needed is better co-ordination. I have no problem with the Minister’s general point  that having an independent inspectorate, rather than the mixture of inspections to which the immigration service is subject at the moment. It is perfectly sensible. Our problem with parts of these amendments and new clauses is where they fall short of that ambition.

There are two amendments in the group in my name. The first one, which the Minister dealt with, is about whether the chief inspector will have the power to investigate individual cases. One of the more disingenuous parts of the Minister’s remarks on the Bill was when he appeared to imply that my amendment would give more protection to individual foreign nationals, who he said already had enough protections. By contrast, the purpose of allowing the chief inspector to investigate individual cases is to improve his or her ability to do the job of delving into the darker corners of the IND, where the really serious scandals often emerge. The purpose of the amendment is to reverse what is in the clause now and to give the inspector specific power to investigate individual cases.

Throughout the course of our deliberations on the Bill we have praised the professionalism and dedication of those who work in the immigration service. We were right to do so, but we all know that from time to time things go wrong. Things particularly go wrong at Lunar house; we have seen a succession of scandals there, involving all sorts of deeply unpleasant corruption, of which the most vivid was the sex-for-visas scandal. It seems very strange to set up a new inspectorate because the Minister wanted, he said, to apply the disinfectant of sunlight—I think that was today’s soundbite—to the administration over which he presides, but then to say that that particular disinfectant cannot be used on some of our most toxic cases, which are the individual scandals that happen. If so, he will produce an inspectorate that is not able to inspect what they ought to be inspecting, because he will know that many of the worst examples of the manifold problems that the immigration system face are often exposed by the individual case.

I should point out that we are proposing to empower the chief inspector to inspect every case, but not to mandate him to do so, because that would clearly involve overload and prevent the inspector from doing all the other desirable things that we would all want him to do. Without the power to investigate individual cases, the chief inspector will be hobbled, not be able to do the job and, more importantly therefore, not be a suitable tool for Ministers to improve the Department. It would be a huge shame if one possible method to enable Ministers to do their job properly does not come into force in the proper way because of drafting which at best is short-sighted and at worst is actually attempting to set up an inspectorate designed not to inspect too much that might be embarrassing for the political masters of the officials who might have made the mistakes or, even worse, committed the crimes such as we have seen happen inside the IND.

The Minister also talked about improving public confidence—I think—which is a good, neutral phrase, since public confidence is clearly at such a low ebb. He will know as well as I do that nothing serves public suspicions of cover-ups or fuels feelings that complaints are not being taken seriously like a series of internal inquiries. That is a longstanding bugbear with Whitehall. Here is an opportunity to get away from the  culture of the internal inquiry. Almost whatever conclusion such an inquiry comes to, it is always dismissed by the sceptical as a whitewash, because there is no sign of independence. For the most serious cases, I strongly urge the Minister that the chief inspector ought to have the power to investigate individual cases.

The Minister does not have to look far to see an inspectorate that works well. I commend Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, as an example of how to be an inspector in a way that makes waves and causes ructions and problems, of course, but leads to the long-term exposure of problems and therefore to the long-term improvement in the quality of the service. Lord Ramsbotham did not sit behind a desk, look at statistics and take an overview, he went out and did a lot of work in individual prisons. It is the ability to get out and look at individual cases and to draw conclusions from them that will make an inspectorate successful. Amendment (a) to new clause 6 is extremely important, as it would help us to further the hope that both sides of the Committee share that the inspectorate will prove to be as significant and challenging as we believe it should be.

My second amendment, to new clause 8, is equally important because it attempts to ensure that the procedures are as open as possible. Under the new clause as drafted, the Secretary of State can delete material from the chief inspector’s report to Parliament if he considers that it would call into question the safety of an individual person or constitute a threat to national security. Those are reasonable, underlying desires; the amendment would insert some independence into the judgment of what should be deleted. It would ensure that the Information Commissioner considered it and thus obtained an outside view of whether deleted material had been deleted for proper reasons, such as those of national security, for example, or for less proper reasons, such as avoiding embarrassment to Ministers.

In principle, new clause 8 is a good proposal. We have argued repeatedly in our discussions that Ministers should report to Parliament on the effects of the Bill and part of me welcomes their late conversion to that principle. The amendment, like the previous one, would make that reporting effective rather than half-hearted.

The Home Secretary is clearly not the only person who can make judgments on whether a person’s safety might be in danger or, indeed, whether national security would be affected. The Minister may argue that the Information Commissioner is not the right person for that purpose, and we would be happy to table amendments at a later stage to insert someone else. The amendment would establish the principle that the person must be somebody independent, who does not rely on the Home Secretary for his appointment, who is not part of the Whitehall machinery and who can take a view on whether the important material contained in the chief inspector’s report should not be pre-censored by the Home Secretary.

I can tell the Minister now that if the report has to go through a Home Office filter before it is published and, for whatever good reason, some material is  deleted, there will be an enormous amount of public cynicism about the ultimate value of the chief inspector’s report. If Ministers are sincere in their desire not just to allow some sunlight into this matter but also, in the long term, to improve the workings of the system, which is just as important, they should be prepared to take along the way the lumps of the individual problems that the chief inspector has reported. The slightest suspicion that the chief inspector is being censored will be hugely damaging to that confidence-building measure and to the process of finding people of the appropriate calibre to work for the inspectorate. I urge the Minister to be bold, and not to try to over-respond to the culture of secrecy that too often comes from inside Whitehall Departments, and to accept that if he wants to let in the sunlight, he must do so properly. He has to allow some independent body to look at what material is being taken out of the chief inspector’s report.

The overall purpose of the amendments is to ensure that the reality of what appears in the legislation lives up to the rhetoric that the Minister has put behind it. He says that it will be important and an opening up of the system. It is possible that that will be the case, but that will be much more likely if the two important changes are made: the chief inspector should be given the power to investigate individual cases, if he wants to; and somebody other than the Home Secretary has the ability to decide whether information should be deleted from the annual reports of the chief inspector. Both the amendments would markedly improve this part of the Bill, and I commend them to the Committee.