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Examination of Witness

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:55 pm on 14th February 2019.

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Joe Owen gave evidence.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 3:30 pm, 14th February 2019

Welcome. Would you like to introduce yourself to the Committee, just for the record?

Joe Owen:

I am Joe Owen, associate director at the Institute for Government.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

Q What do you think about the powers in clause 4?

Joe Owen:

The Bill is a framework Bill that gives the Government broad powers with which to move forward. In some respects, particularly when we look at some of the criticisms we have already heard about this being a kind of blank cheque for Government, that is not uncommon on immigration. The basis of the legislation—the 1971 Act—means that the Government have pretty broad powers to start making changes in the immigration system. This is not necessarily a massive deviation from that.

Looking at this, there is an important question about whether the basis of immigration rules, with which this clearly shows a problem, is the right way to do immigration rules. It is certainly the case that between 2010 and 2013, for example, there were some pretty big changes in the immigration system, not least reducing non-EU migration, over which we had control—for want of a better phrase—by about 40%. That was all done without primary legislation, just through immigration rules.

There was also the introduction of the minimum threshold for family reunification, which meant that around 40% of British citizens, I think, would not be able to bring over spouses from the rest of the world under those rules. Whether or not you agree with the policy, there is a question about whether it is right that that can be done through immigration rules and negative procedure. The broad question with the Bill is the continuation of broad powers to make changes in the immigration system. There is a valid question at this point about whether that is the right way to progress with immigration legislation.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

Q Do you think there is sufficient scrutiny of immigration rules now?

Joe Owen:

There is obviously value in having immigration rules that can be quick and responsive and make changes where there is recognised abuse in the system, or equally to loosen things up if there is a squeeze in the labour market. There is clearly value in having reactive immigration rules, but there is a question about the level of scrutiny more broadly. There is one quite interesting question about what happens before it gets to Parliament.

In the benefits system, there is the interesting example of the Social Security Advisory Committee, which brings together experts from an operational perspective, who are used to implementing the rules on a day-to-day basis, from a legal perspective and from business, non-governmental organisations and so on, to try to work out how those rules would be implemented in practice. That is quite an interesting model that there is less of when it comes to immigration rules; there is less up-front kicking the tyres.

When it comes to parliamentary scrutiny, that is done through the negative procedure as the baseline. I have already touched on some of the big changes that it was possible to make through the negative procedure. This change prompts a discussion about whether that is the right way for changes to be made in the immigration system and whether there needs to be another look at the balance of power between the Executive and what can be done through primary legislation. As I said at the beginning, that is not to say that everything should be done under primary legislation, because there are strong arguments for being able to be reactive, but I think there are certain cases where there is insufficient scrutiny of immigration rules.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

Q Do you think there was sufficient scrutiny of the hostile environment when it was brought in?

Joe Owen:

That is a good question. That came through primary legislation with the 2014 Act, so there was an opportunity to discuss it. There was never really a White Paper. If you want a White Paper that sets out the hostile environment, you need to go back to Labour. I think it was in 2007 when they called it the “difficult environment”, or the “uncomfortable environment”, which put out a lot of the ideas that became the basis for the 2014 Act. Obviously, things changed, and it was not exactly that blueprint, but not much of a blueprint was laid out.

There is a question about what happened to some of the challenges that were picked up during that process. We know from the Government’s own impact assessments that they recognised that the right-to-rent measures, for example, would affect people of an older generation who had their rights guaranteed under primary legislation, whose documents might have been destroyed. It basically described the Windrush issue in a policy equality statement in, I think, 2015.

There is a question about the extent to which that was scrutinised, and what happened to that information afterwards. However, in terms of the level of scrutiny of the hostile environment, there was a piece of primary legislation, but there is an argument that there was not as much information White Paper-wise as you might normally expect.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

Q Knowing what we know about where we are with the current immigration system, do you think that it needs to be reviewed before we add another 3 million or 4 million EU citizens? Would it help to streamline, improve and simplify it?

Joe Owen:

Yes. This is a big opportunity to change the way the immigration system works, but clearly there is a trade-off between time and the level of ambition for what you can change. As it stands, the system would need to be up and running in less than two years. Clearly, time is a big constraint. That is one of the reasons why a lot of what sits at the core of the policy in the White Paper is the points-based system that existed before 2010. There were then a series of add-ons, such as the cap, which this removes, and stuff around the resident labour market test. Those things that were bolted are being stripped back.

The fact that there is so little time means that the level of ambition has to be curtailed in terms of what you can do. You would expect that changes will be needed over the longer term; we will not be done and dusted in December 2020. Such things as the promised review of the sponsorship system for employees might have to be done in the longer term. One of the things that we are looking at is whether there needs to be a bigger review of how the immigration system works, and the structures and processes in the Home Office. That was one of the things announced by the Home Secretary in response to the DNA testing issue.

One of the areas that is not touched on, and which will likely need a review—this has definitely been a theme in the evidence of all your previous panellists—is how enforcement works. You have heard from all the panellists since I have been here about the question of settled status, and what happens to the people who do not have settled status at the end. It is almost certain that quite large numbers of people will not.

It would be heroic if the Government managed to get to 95%. I think the dreamers scheme in the US, which was kind of similar in terms of the application process and who was eligible, got about 43% of people who were eligible. I think we did something in the UK around family leave to remain in the early to mid-2000s where we got about 20% coverage. Even if we were to stretch to 95%, which would be a really good job by the Home Office, you are talking potentially about nearly 200,000 people who do not have documentation. How does the enforcement system adapt to take into account the fact that that is just a reality we will be dealing with?

The Home Office will need to deal with the fact that there will be people for whom it does not have paperwork, and who technically may have no legal right to stay, if they did not apply within the time period. I think most people in the UK would recognise some kind of moral entitlement to stay if someone has lived here for 20-odd years. How the enforcement system adapts to that will be an important challenge.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Privileges

Q Can I ask you about the provisions in the Bill that relate to social security co-ordination? Clause 5, again, gives the Government Henry VIII powers to modify the social security co-ordination arrangements, including modifications to entitlements that people may currently have in primary legislation. You have spoken a bit about how immigration rules have been used to modify primary legislation. What is your view of those Henry VIII powers?

Joe Owen:

I have to admit that I am by no means an expert on social security, but this is part of a broader Brexit phenomenon. The level of uncertainty of what sits ahead, and the need to pass legislation, means that the Government have to take broad powers in certain areas to cover all aspects of a no-deal scenario. Whether there is the necessary scrutiny of that, and the necessary security as to the powers being used properly, is a different question, but it would in some cases be quite difficult to get away from taking broad powers on Brexit-related issues, unless the Government were to be quite forward-looking about what they planned to do.

In short, it is kind of unavoidable that there are some quite broad powers in the Bill, but there is a serious question about whether there is the right level of scrutiny, and what more Select Committees, for example, could do to make sure the powers are used properly.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Privileges

Q Is there a difference when delegated legislation is used to remove rights currently enjoyed by people who are already here, and when it is a matter of the application of those rights in future?

Joe Owen:

Most people would recognise a difference between those two. There is a question as to how to manage that in legislation. I am not entirely sure how one could go about that at this point.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Privileges

Q I guess it would be possible to constrain the scope of what could be amended in delegated legislation more tightly than the Bill does.

Joe Owen:

Yes, that is certainly an option.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

You have mentioned the constraints of time, which, obviously, are potentially quite challenging. If we were to leave with a no-deal scenario on 29 March, and the Bill was in place by then, how do you think implementation on the ground would go? Would there be challenges to get things running in that timeframe?

Joe Owen:

There are two things when it comes to no deal; there is the settlement scheme for EU citizens who are here before 29 March, and then there is the temporary leave to remain scheme for those who arrive afterwards. The first system is up and running and being trialled. While rights change in certain areas as a result of there being no deal, the process in the system is the same—so, credit to the Home Office for having a new technology system up and running and being trialled within two years. Most people, looking at Government IT projects, would say that was pretty impressive. Obviously it still has a long way to go before it can be said to be complete.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

Q Do you think the ambition set out in the Bill—you mentioned ambition versus time—is appropriate, considering the constraints we face?

Joe Owen:

The second part of your question—the bigger challenge to do with time—is about what happens to EU citizens who arrive after 29 March, on a temporary leave to remain. It is as true on this as it is for huge areas of the Government’s no-deal preparations: there is very little visibility, as to preparedness, in comparison with what would be expected for most major Government projects. In reports from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, for example, there is little information about where Government preparedness is, on a host of no-deal issues. On the policy aspect, you get the sense that the temporary leave to remain is a bit of a Whitehall workaround, given the political incentive to end free movement if we leave without a deal on 29 March, but there are the practical problems of not being able to do much about that until you have registered as many as possible of the EU citizens who were here before 29 March and got a new system up and running. Neither of those things will be true for 30 March, so we have a registration scheme that will exist that will not really be enforced by landlords, businesses and employers in the same way as other parts of the migration system would be.

There is a big question about how that registration scheme will work in practice and what problem it is trying to solve besides saying, “We have ended free movement.” As with settled status, when we switch to a future migration regime, what happens at the back end to all those people who did not apply, for good or bad reasons—they may not have known that they needed to—and are not registered, or who do not then qualify for the future migration system? If that is a big number, will one of the first things that the UK Government do, after their new immigration system is put in place, be to close down bank accounts or start to deport loads of European citizens who came in that period? That would be a bold move.

That links back to how enforcement will work, particularly with the no-deal scenario. I appreciate that that has not necessarily answered your question about the powers in the Bill and the link to that, but it is an important question about how the no-deal scenario would work.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I have four more people wishing to ask questions and 13 minutes.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

Q I have a more general question on the issue, given your wider brief. When the Home Secretary introduced the Bill to the House, he said that it sought to address people’s concerns about immigration, which were the main factor behind the Brexit vote. Do you think it odd, then, given the division between primary and secondary legislation, that this is essentially an enabling Bill that provides no clarity at all about the future immigration arrangements—what the Home Secretary defined as the critical issue behind the Brexit vote?

Joe Owen:

Obviously, the Bill is accompanied by the White Paper. In comparison with a lot of the Brexit White Papers for the big Brexit Bills that are coming through, it is probably the meatiest in terms of setting out what life after Brexit will look like in the policy area. In comparison with things such as trade or customs, where there is a huge uncertainty—

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

Critical issues such as the tier 2 salary cap have deliberately gone out to consultation, however, because there is no agreement within the Cabinet about what that should look like.

Joe Owen:

There are bits that are still up for grabs, but in comparison with a lot of other areas, we have a clearer vision of the detail of the policy for after Brexit. There is an interesting question, between the Bill and the White Paper, about the vision and strategy—what is immigration for, after Brexit? That question is still missing and has been missing for quite a long time. The last immigration White Paper was in 2006, I think, and there has never really been a discussion about the aims and objectives of the immigration system.

In the most recent White Paper, there are conversations about salary thresholds and RQF levels, and quite detailed policy questions. At the front, in terms of aims and objectives, there are two pages that talk about being fair and balanced and working for the whole UK, but with no real idea of what that means and what the system is supposed to achieve. There is that gap. In terms of whether the Bill is quiet on the big issue, I think the White Paper is there.

There is a question about what the Bill should say about citizens’ rights, if anything. It is fair that, given what is in the withdrawal agreement as it stands, and the fact that it is a key part of the negotiation, it makes sense that that sits in the withdrawal agreement Bill, not least because there are some things in there about the precedent of EU law and so on, which is all best dealt with in a single case. If there is no contention—I have not heard much in the UK Parliament, I have heard nothing in the EU and I have heard nothing between the UK and the EU about disagreement with the citizens’ rights part of the withdrawal agreement—why has the withdrawal agreement Bill not been published in draft, or at least the areas that cover citizens’ rights? That would be a way of setting out in more detail what is likely to come down the track, for those who are uncertain about what is missing in this Bill, even if it is in draft and only covers certain sections of the withdrawal agreement.

Photo of Eleanor Smith Eleanor Smith Labour, Wolverhampton South West

Q You mentioned the Americans and the figure of 45%, and we keep saying that it is realistic that we are trying to get 95%. Is that realistic? How is it feasible for the Home Office to do that in two years?

Joe Owen:

It is very unrealistic that there will be 100%, although I may come to regret saying that. Considering that we do not entirely know how many EU citizens are in the UK and exactly where they are, trying to target them is a huge challenge. You have already heard from a number of people about the can’ts, the don’ts and the won’ts. There will be some who cannot get status, even if they want to, because they do not have the right information, they cannot access the internet or for other valid reasons. There will be the don’ts—children or elderly people, for example—who do not know that they need to apply. Then there are the won’ts, who are the people who say, “I completely disagree with this as a policy; I think it is ridiculous and I am not going to do it as a matter of principle.”

Those people will exist. The first two categories are likely to be filled with more vulnerable people, as previous people giving evidence have attested. There needs to be a recognition that designing for 100% is the wrong way to go. The right way to go is to make sure that there are sufficient safeguards and clarity in the system about what happens to people who do not have settled status at the end of the two years, possibly for very good reasons, and what will happen to those who we think do not have good reasons as to why they do not have settled status. Having clarity about what will happen to those people—they will inevitably exist—at the back end of the two years is really important.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q What is your view about the proposals outlined in the European temporary leave to remain scheme for EU citizens who arrive in the UK after 29 March, in the event of no deal?

Joe Owen:

As I have previously said, it seems like a workaround to a problem. There is a political imperative to do something to end free movement, but practically it is really difficult, because EU citizens need to be given time to apply; you need the White Paper and the new system needs to be up and running. Until there are those two things, it is almost impossible to meaningfully end free movement. We therefore have a system where, for citizens coming into the UK, it will be exactly as it is now; and then after three months, if they want to stay longer, they can apply for temporary registration, which will be largely a security check. There is nothing to enforce whether people have that or not. If I go to my employer at the end of 2020 with a European passport, they do not know if I am someone who has lived here for 30 years and has not claimed settled status yet, or if I turned up a year ago and I have not bothered to do the registration scheme. There is a real difficulty about how this will practically be enforced.

As I said, another issue is what happens at the back end, when the new system comes into place and people who are here—who have either registered or have not registered—apply for the new system. If they are unsuccessful, what happens to them and what is the treatment of them? What kicks in around that, again knowing that large groups of people are likely to be in that situation? People will be expecting that to be dealt with in a way that carries public confidence.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Q You spoke a couple of times about the possibility that the enforcement system would have to adapt or changes would have to be made to the back end of the system, as I think you referred to it, to do with the large group of people that will inevitably miss the deadline. Can you say any more about how you can see this system adapting? How far can it really change from what it is? What sort of things do you have in mind?

Joe Owen:

There are some questions around built-in safeguards in the immigration enforcement and caseworking system within the Home Office. There have already been quite positive steps, with a team of senior caseworkers being established in response to Windrush last year. They are there to provide a bit more discretion—a second pair of eyes—on some of the difficult cases. How do we build that into the system to ensure that there is a safeguard for people who have characteristics that make you think that the person has been caught up without the right paperwork, but would have been covered under the withdrawal agreement? Addressing some of the structural and process questions—assuming that the policy around the hostile environment or compliant environment of enforcement through public services, landlords and employers continues—would seem to be one way. There is also more that can be done with people who end up being the arm of immigration enforcement, such as landlords and employers, through education and outreach. Those are some of the more processy things, rather than questions of policy.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Q I can see that that sort of thing can make a difference around the edges, but it is not going to get to the nub of the issues. Fundamentally, the problem is that you will still have hundreds of thousands of people who are simply without rights. Some of the bolder suggestions have been not to have a time limit at all, so that people can continue to apply, or to make the system a declaratory system

Joe Owen:

Those are certainly options, if you want to change the timeline. In terms of changing the timeline, if you give EU citizens more time in which to apply, to some extent that is likely to kick on the point at which you can bring in any new immigration scheme, because you need to find a way to differentiate between people when they apply for jobs.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Q Possibly. People who qualify for the settled status scheme will still have every incentive to do so anyway. That could be one of the incentives: they will not able to get employed until they have the documentation. They still have every incentive to do it, but that would just mean that they could not be removed and subject to everything else.

Joe Owen:

Precisely. This is about how you build safeguards into the system, so that the first time something flags up, you do not necessarily get a very strongly worded letter about having to leave the country, but perhaps a reminder that you need to be applying for settled status. There should be different grades of how the Home Office interacts with people whom it thinks are caught up as a result of not having the information. A time limit is one option and a declaratory system is another option. In the past, when there have been big groups of people who do not have status, you could just do a total amnesty and say, “Fine, we are just going to do a declaratory scheme and issue people with the necessary documentation.” All those things are options. Assuming that those big policy choices do not get taken, just in terms of the structures and processes, it is important that there are these necessary safeguards built in as a kind of bare minimum.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Thank you very much for your time this afternoon, Mr Owen. The Committee is very grateful for the evidence you have provided us with. Our two final witnesses have been sitting patiently throughout the whole of our proceedings, so I think they will be familiar with what will happen.