Richard Fuller: ... The policy has also led to the detention of the innocent. How did we manage to set up a policy that results in children being put into prison? ... Why do we continue to keep pregnant women in detention? ... there were cases of women who were 35 weeks pregnant being removed from Yarl’s Wood last month. I point this out ... to illustrate how far we have allowed our morality to be debased by losing control over the system ...
Will the Minister also ensure that the Home Office implements its own policies thoroughly? The Government have rightly said that they want to introduce a better process for people who have survived torture, who, according to the rules, are not deemed suitable for fast-tracking or detention. To avoid detention, however, such people are supposed to have their evidence to hand. The problem with that policy is that it is very hard for them to have that evidence to hand when they are assessed. It takes time to get it together. The pamphlet from Medical Justice, “The Second Torture”, gives 50 examples of people who have suffered torture but who have not been permitted to follow the appropriate process because the Home Office is not fulfilling its obligations....
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): ...The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) raised the issue of compliance with rule 35. I have met representatives of people whom I would describe as constituents, because they have been detained in my constituency, who have been victims of torture and whose circumstances have been affected deleteriously by their detention. That continues. Hunger strikes are currently taking place in detention centres. People who have come here to seek asylum as a result of torture and the loss of human rights have been denied it, have been locked up, and are now refusing food. Some are in a serious condition.
Full debate ;
UK Border Agency
[Relevant Documents: The Fifteenth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2010-12, on the work of the UK Border Agency (April-July 2011), HC 1497, and the Government response, Cm 8253, and the Twenty-First Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12, on the work of the UK Border Agency (August-December 2011), HC 1722, and the Government response, Session 2012-13, HC 378.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2013, for expenditure by the Home Office—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £5,223,694,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1919 of Session 2010-12,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £274,499,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £5,536,178,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Mr Vara.)
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to open this important debate about not only the Home Office estimates but the Home Affairs Committee’s reports into the UK Border Agency. I am pleased to see the Minister and shadow Minister and so many right hon. and hon. Members who have direct experience of dealing with the UK Border Agency.
I particularly welcome members of the Home Affairs Committee who are here today. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) and the hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) have made enormous contributions to the reports that the Select Committee has published in the past few years. The main feature of our reports is that they have been unanimous. Another feature has been our hope that with a succession of very carefully worded but carefully thought out reports we will be able to improve the quality of the UK Border Agency.
Right at the start, I want to make something clear. I have chaired the Home Affairs Committee for five years. We have produced our reports about the administration of the UKBA on a regular basis under the previous Government and the current Government, and we have been as critical in the former case as in the latter. There is no party political point in this; it is about trying to get the best possible service that can be provided to those who use the UKBA. We decided at the start of the Parliament to look regularly at how the UKBA operates, so every three months we revisit our report to see whether there has been any improvement in the system. We also decided to put up a number of key indicators by which we judge how the UKBA operates. It is not the usual kind of Select Committee report that has big and long recommendations; rather, we make specific suggestions that we want the UKBA to follow.
As the estimates indicate, the UKBA’s budget for 2012-13 is £1 billion, and it has a staff of 12,835, while the UK Border Force’s budget is £509 million, and it has a staff of 7,333. A number of ongoing issues arose under the previous Labour Government, and I shall touch on some of those. The first issue is foreign national offenders. There are 3,900 foreign national criminals living in the community who are subject to deportation, 57 of whom are part of the famous 2006 cohort who are still unable to be traced. In 2006, 1,013 foreign prisoners were released without any attempt being made to deport them. Of those, 844 people’s cases have been concluded, 399 people have been deported, 445 have not been deported, 93 are still in the process of being deported, 19 are serving another sentence, and 57 are untraceable. That situation has been ongoing for the past six years or so, and we will continue to monitor it until every one of those foreign national criminals has been found.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Did my right hon. Friend’s Committee consider why, when someone is found guilty of a criminal offence in this country and sentenced to prison, we cannot find a way of sending them back to serve their sentence in the country that they came from, instead of having them serve it in our prisons so that we have problems years later in trying to send them back? My constituents are always asking me about this.
Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. These options need to be considered, as they were under the previous Labour Government in respect of Nigeria. Last Thursday, I was in her constituency with members of the Select Committee and we went to Brixton prison, where the governor told us that a third of the prisoners were foreign nationals and that he could not remember a single occasion when such a prisoner was removed at the end of their sentence; they were either taken into the community or made to report to a detention centre.
The Government need to be given credit for the fact that the average time taken to deport has been reduced from 131 days in 2008 to 74 days in 2011, but that is still far too long. There is still a lack of cohesion between the National Offender Management Service and the Home Office. UKBA staff are stationed at Brixton prison, but the problem is that the UKBA is not informed about cases involving foreign national criminals right at the beginning of the process, at the time of sentencing. We have recommended in successive reports that that should happen in order to shorten the period between the release of the prisoner and their being removed to his or her country.
In all the years I have been in this House, the main issue that has dogged the border forces has been the continual delays and backlogs that have gone on under successive Governments. We only recently discovered as part of our inquiry that a number of new, almost virtual reality, filing systems exist at the UKBA. There is the controlled archive which dates back to 2006; I prefer to call it the TARDIS, because files go in there and seem never to come out. The controlled archive is the place where files are dumped in cases where the UKBA does not know where the people are.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that one of the most significant reasons for the difficulty in returning people to their countries of origin is the fact that those countries, including some with which this nation has very good relations, often do not want them back and therefore obfuscate and create delay, making it much harder for us to deport them efficiently?
Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that that is a problem, but that does not mean that we do not have to try to make sure that such deportations happen, because that would be a huge saving to the taxpayer and help us to meet the targets that the Government clearly want us to reach.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): My right hon. Friend referred to the TARDIS, as he calls it, but there are other cases in which people who have not yet been deported are simply categorised as “unknown issues”, so we have the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. That is a bizarre way of dealing with people, is it not?
Keith Vaz: It is indeed. There seems to be a paralysis on the part of senior officials of the UKBA, who just create more of these archives and move the backlog into different areas without trying to solve the problem.
The archive has now been reduced from 98,000 to 93,000, and from January to March 2012 it fell to 80,000. When Mr Whiteman, the chief executive of the UKBA, who has been brought in as a new broom to try to make sure that these matters are sorted out, last appeared before the Committee, he promised us that the archive will, in effect, be closed by 31 December 2012, and we will hold him to that promise. His predecessor, Lin Homer, who because of the fabulous work that she did at the UKBA has been promoted and is now one of the permanent secretaries at the Treasury, gave us a promise when she said, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), who had requested that the legacy cases be concluded by the end of last summer, that every single legacy case would be concluded by the end of last year. [Interruption.]As can be seen from the reaction of right hon. and hon. Members here today, that has not happened. The UKBA has probably just created another of the filing systems where it puts various files when it does not know what has happened to the people involved.
Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the key areas in which we need to hold the UKBA to account is data management? It is almost impossible to understand what is going on and who is going where if we do not have clarity and transparency about the numbers.
Keith Vaz: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She makes that point every time the head of the UKBA appears before us; I do not know whether she is an expert on data management. It is a big problem because, in the end, the immigration debate is about statistics. If the statistics are not right and we are unable to get the proper data, we cannot have an effective debate about what is happening.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): To go back to the controlled archive and the removal of old cases, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that new cases are still being added to it? It is very much like filling up a Jaguar car with petrol while leaving the engine on, so more petrol is needed at the pump.
Keith Vaz: As the hon. Gentleman will know from his case load, it is a continuing process. He will hear about more of these cases on Friday when he holds his surgery. The Select Committee is saying that the backlog must be cleared, not just put in a different part of the UKBA. It cannot just move the files from Croydon to Liverpool and expect the situation to be sorted out. It must clear the backlog once and for all. With the willingness to do so and the £1 billion of resources that are available each year, that should be possible.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con) rose —
Keith Vaz: I will give way twice more, but then I must make progress because other Members want to speak.
Fiona Mactaggart: I concur with what my right hon. Friend has said about clearing the backlog once and for all. One of my concerns is that, in the present exercise of dealing with legacy cases and the backlog, instead of making a final decision on cases—people used to be given indefinite leave to remain or were returned—lots of people are being given three years’ discretionary leave, which means that a new backlog is being created for three years’ time.
Keith Vaz: No one in this House knows more about these issues than my hon. Friend, having been the chair of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. She is right that decisions are being put off.
Richard Fuller: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that immigration is an issue of statistics. It may not be popular to say so, but does he agree that it is also an issue about the lives of individual people? In managing the statistics, we should not lose sight—no matter what the tabloids say—of the fact that we are talking about people who may have made a commitment to come here and who may have gone through extremely difficult circumstances to get here. How we treat such people should have just as much emphasis in our consideration as dealing with the statistics.
Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Yarl’s Wood is near his constituency, so he will have dealt with these kinds of cases. It is important that we look at the cases on an individual basis. Of course they form part of a grid, table or pie chart, but they involve individual people with real problems that we need to deal with.
I will move on to students, which is an issue of great interest to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon. The Select Committee happens to contain not only the hon. Lady, but the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), so obviously student visas are an important issue to it. Of course, the fine universities of Northampton, Leicester, De Montfort and Rhondda are also represented in the Chamber.
If there is not a university of Rhondda, I am sure that there will be by the end of the week.
We love seeing the Minister for Immigration before the Committee, although we do not see him often enough. He is coming before us on Tuesday. When he last came before us, we talked about student visas. There is definitely a difference of emphasis between the Foreign Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Home Office. The Home Office feels that it is very important to reduce the number of students, and to reduce the intake only to the brightest and the best—whatever that means.
We all want to get rid of bogus colleges. That is why the Committee has pressed the UKBA to ensure that more of its visits are unannounced. The majority of its visits to colleges are still announced. People can therefore prepare for its arrival. We believe that it is important, as we have said in successive reports, that it just turns up on a Monday morning, a Friday afternoon or a Wednesday morning to see whether the college is operating. It is quite easy to do that. The UKBA does it for enforcement purposes. I have many examples of that. Indeed, the Home Secretary has given the example of a restaurant in her constituency, which she visited regularly and liked, being raided by the UKBA. It found that some of the workers were here illegally. If it is all right to raid restaurants, it should be all right to go into colleges to see whether they are bogus.
We and the university sector want as many genuine students to come here as possible, because if they do not come here, they will go to the United States of America. There is even evidence that France is setting up courses in English to attract people who do not want to apply to come to the United Kingdom. It is therefore important that we deal with student numbers.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): There are genuine students who apply to and are accepted by a college on the UKBA’s approved list only for the college to be delisted. Those students are given no opportunity to find an alternative course and are left high and dry. They, too, are victims of this system.
Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend is right. I have many examples of people who have come to my constituency only for the colleges to be closed down. That has happened to one or two colleges in Leicester. Where do those people go in the meantime? The colleges are bogus, but the students are not. They have paid their money in good faith. They are then in limbo if they do not have a different educational establishment to go to.
Nicola Blackwood: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Keith Vaz: I will give way as we are talking about education and it is the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon who wishes to intervene.
Nicola Blackwood: As always, the right hon. Gentleman’s generosity is extraordinary. Does he agree that it is vital to get the message right on student visas? It must be clear that, although we are clamping down on illegal student immigration, we are still open to genuine student immigration, because it is vital to our higher education sector. We still need the brightest and best students to come to our fantastic universities, such as Oxford university and Oxford Brookes university.
Keith Vaz:: I agree with the hon. Lady, but that is true not only of the elite, which includes Oxford and Oxford Brookes universities, but of all the other language schools and higher education colleges that provide such a wonderful service.
I will turn to family migration, which I know the Minister for Immigration will be asked about when he comes before the Select Committee on Tuesday. The new migration changes will come into effect on Monday. That, in my view, will be a disaster for the settled British Asian community. We are dealing not with people who come here illegally, but with the settled community, which the Prime Minister rightly praised recently at a big meeting of the Conservative Friends of India. Some 1,000 members of the diaspora turned up and listened to the Prime Minister’s speech. They liked what he said, but they will not like what the Minister and the Home Office are going to do on family visitor visas.
Last week, I was presented with a case involving a wedding that will take place in Leicester in three weeks’ time. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and I will go along, as we do with every wedding in Leicester. Two sisters of the bride had applied to come over from Toronto. One sister had been allowed to come, but the other had been refused. I wrote a letter, because there was no time for an appeal. The appeals system is so awful and takes so long, as the Minister keeps telling us and the UKBA, that there was no point in appealing, because the appeal would have come up next year, well after the wedding. I therefore wrote to ask for a review. I wrote to my account manager, Saleah Ahmed, who is very efficient. He is a post box—he does not make the decisions, but sent my letter to New York, which is the hub for north America. The letter that I got back said, “Sorry, the second sister’s case cannot be looked at because we only look at cases where there is a death or serious injury.” The first sister will be able to get into the country for the wedding, but the second sister will not be allowed in, despite the additional evidence that I have sent in, which will not even be considered. If the bridegroom or the bride died, the decision might be reconsidered, but otherwise, the second sister will not be allowed into the country and will miss her sister’s wedding.
That situation will be repeated thousands and thousands of times when the right of appeal is removed and there is no effective system to deal with such problems. We have asked the Minister for meeting. I hope that he will meet Members from all parts of the House who have an interest in this matter. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), members of whose community I have met, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who must have a huge immigration case load, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) and the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller)—I could go round the whole Chamber—will not like a system which means that they can no longer tell their constituents that there is a right of appeal. They will not like a system in which there is no review or in which the review will take longer than the period that is left before such a wedding. We will be inundated with cases and the system will collapse.
When I and other members of the Home Affairs Committee went to meet Jonathan Sedgwick, who heads the international section of the UKBA, he did not have a plan, because there was no ministerial plan in place. It is very important that we get such a plan in place before the changes take place. I do not like those changes, of course, but I will look at the plan that is on offer.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware that the last Conservative Government abolished the right of appeal. As he said, when constituents who are sponsors write to us, we then write to the UKBA or the Minister and receive the predictable reply that the case was examined by the appropriate official, who took into consideration all the details and came to a decision. Writing to the Minister or the UKBA will get us no response other than one reaffirming the refusal. That is a denial of justice and means that the entry clearance officer is judge and jury, which is totally wrong and inappropriate. I hope the Minister will reconsider it.
Keith Vaz: I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments, although I have not made them with quite the same passion and eloquence. This issue will simply not go away.
I hope that we will also consider the quality of refusal notices. I pay tribute to John Vine, who is doing a superb job as the independent inspector. He came before the Home Affairs Committee a few years ago, just after he was appointed, and I was worried that he would not be able to do a good job, but he has done a superb job. He makes the point that the process starts with the refusal notice. If that is not clear, we cannot make progress.
I do not know whether the Minister or other Members had the chance to see the Prime Minister’s appearance before the Liaison Committee yesterday. In his answer to my question about the UKBA, he was very clear that he did not believe bonuses should be paid if the job was not being done. The £3.5 million given to senior officials of the UKBA last year, in defiance of the Home Affairs Committee’s recommendation and the views of the Prime Minister and senior Ministers, who have no control over those bonuses, was wrong. Some 25% of the senior officials at the UKBA got a bonus of up to £7,000 each last year.
The Minister knows the problems of the UKBA. He knows about the queues at Heathrow airport and is well aware of what happened with the Brodie Clark saga. It is not an organisation whose senior officials are worthy of being given bonuses. When they do a good job, as Mr Whiteman has promised to do in the end, we can consider bonuses, but certainly not at the moment.
I hope that the Minister will assure us that the 7,000 people in the Border Force will be enough to deal with the inflow of the 5 million to 11 million people who it is estimated will come to the UK in the three-week period of the Olympics. I hope that the number of people that he promised would be at the airports to check people getting in will be forthcoming.
The Home Affairs Committee does not divide on its reports if it can help it, although on points of great principle my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) does his best to encourage us to be much more challenging—I was going to say divisive—in how we present our reports. We will continue to monitor the UKBA every three months, and we will continue to give it key indicators, of which there are 47 at the moment.
The one thing that really irritates the Committee is the fact that the UKBA delays in sending us information. I put that point to the Prime Minister in the Liaison Committee yesterday. That was a problem under the Labour Government and, I am sorry to say, there is still a problem under the current Government. We are dealing by and large with the same officials—Ministers have changed, but the officials and the culture remain the same. When we write to the UKBA and ask for information, we want a reply by a deadline, because when it writes to our constituents it expects a reply by a deadline. We want to ensure that the data that we ask for are put forward and that our requests are not left on a Minister’s desk waiting to be replied to. We shall continue to hold the organisation to account in a rigorous and robust way, and we hope that that will be of benefit to Members.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I start by being somewhat self-indulgent and paying tribute to my office staff. As Members may imagine, they have an enormous burden of immigration work in a Bradford constituency. I also pay tribute to the Home Affairs Committee, which has raised many of the relevant issues so well that I can speak for a much shorter time than I normally would on such an important topic for my constituency.
I also pay tribute to the staff of the UKBA, because although at times there appear to be systemically dysfunctional areas in the service, that should not lead to criticism of the individual officers with whom we work. In particular, I pay tribute to the account managers. Our own, Chris Taylor, has been excellent. I believe that structural changes to the service are planned, and I urge the Minister to retain the local connection. If that were taken away, it would be greatly to the detriment of the service that is provided. Is it intended to keep that local connection, which is so important to us?
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is really important to get a good relationship between the person at the UKBA and the constituency office team? The UKBA does a far better job when it is willing to listen to MPs and their staff and respond positively. If it puts us at arm’s length and tries to run away from us, it delivers far less good a service.
Mr Ward: Absolutely. We often systematise things to try to improve them when they are really about personal relationships. We need to build close understandings and partnerships, which in our case have been to the benefit of clients with whom we have dealt.
We were told that the UKBA’s legacy of cases would be cleared, with the vast majority being fully concluded. As we now know, that meant the transferring of a big chunk of legacy cases into the controlled archive. Rightly or wrongly, the impression was given that the archive was a dumping ground and that the files were being transferred because the UKBA had given up on those cases. Dozens of people have walked into my constituency office and we have been able to find no trace of their case, because it has already been put in the controlled archive. It is then difficult to get it out again. I am sorry if this seems unfair, but it seems like our office is doing the work that the UKBA should have done, at the cost of the time that it takes away from other matters.
Will the Minister confirm or deny that cases are still being added to the controlled archive? My understanding is that if people do not turn up to report to the UKBA three times, their cases are transferred to the archive. If that is not true, a clear message needs to be put out to that effect, because that is what we are told.
Another issue that has cropped up regularly is cases being transferred into the controlled archive in error. That is not so bad if they are then retrieved and dealt with properly, but the evidence suggests that such cases go to the back of the queue when they are retrieved. That is patently unfair on people whose cases should never have been transferred in the first place. I understand that work is now taking place, with credit agencies and other means being utilised to deal with cases in the controlled archive. As I said, however, it is difficult to understand why those cases ever went there in the first place, given that other methods and techniques were available to deal with them first time around.
My final point concerns intelligence. I understand that my constituency office—one single office—accounts for 70% of the intelligence provided in the whole of the west-Yorkshire region, which indicates the number of cases we deal with and the confidence people have that they will be dealt with by my office. When I was a councillor, we were encouraged to dob in the dealers, and local residents would bring cases to us to take to the police. Those people did not hand in that information with disinterest, but wanted to know what would happen; they wanted feedback and to know whether the people dealing drugs in the phone box on the opposite side of the road had been dealt with.
We all think it important that residents support the police, but constituents want to know that something is actually happening. Yet that intelligence appears to disappear without them ever knowing what has happened, which is patently unfair, not only on my office, through which the information goes, but on the people who have provided it. Feedback is important because the people who provide the intelligence often do so at risk to themselves: they might be acting extremely bravely—they might be family members in marriages, some of them sham marriages—and under threat for having provided that evidence. Feedback, then, is not only good practice but humane. They need to know what happens to these people. Especially when there is a slow response in terms of removal, they have a right to know what is happening, because their personal safety might be at risk.
Mr Winnick: The Liberal Democrats have always supported the appeals system—as I recollect, they took the same view as us at the time of the previous Tory Government. Given that they are now part of the coalition and we know that the appeals system for visitors is being abolished, where does the hon. Gentleman stand?
Mr Ward: The hon. Gentleman states our position correctly. I support the appeals system. There would be no dispute between us there.
The Government’s response states that the number of complaints is due to their being difficult cases.
Mr Winnick: I hope I am not being discourteous, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene a second time. If that is the position of the Liberal Democrats, what pressure are they putting on their coalition partner? Why are they not saying, “We won’t go along with this”?
Mr Ward: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I would rather make my speech than the one he probably wants to make. If he makes that speech, I shall intervene and support him, but I would like to finish mine first.
We are told that the number of complaints is a direct result of the complexity of the cases and their impact on individuals. Yes, that is the case to some degree, but the truth is also that the complaints arise from sheer mismanagement—lost files, poor administration and so on. That would not be so bad if the services provided value for money, but they are hugely expensive—as much as £1,000—which means that people rightly demand, and are entitled to, a good service. Given that the appeals process can cost another £120, which they do not get back if they are successful, they have a right to a first-rate system, yet that is clearly not being delivered. Will the Minister indicate what is being done to improve the level of service? I believe that the website talks about a six-month turnaround time. Nobody believes that. They are lucky if it is eight months. So there is this question of value for money.
Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. Gentleman says that nobody believes the turnaround time, but the problem is that many applicants do believe it, and then they come to people such as us and say, “Why am I being picked on?” I say, “You’re not being picked on. It’s like this for everyone”, and they do not believe us. It is time that the Home Office was at least honest about how long it takes.
Mr Ward: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. In fact, everyone is being picked on, so in that sense it is fair really. But that is the claim on the website, and it simply is not being delivered. We need a sense of realism. Not only are these services very expensive, but on the delivery side there is a huge let-down, which makes it even worse when people come into our offices. So I would like the Minister to respond to those issues: value for money, intelligence and the issue of account managers and retaining that local connection.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) not only on the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which he chairs, but on what he said today, particularly how he ended his speech—on the abolition of appeal rights for visitors who are turned down.
If only because of the effluxion of time, as Winston Churchill called it, I have undoubtedly dealt with more immigration cases than any other Member ever has. At present, I have 71 cases on my “active” files, and as some are completed—occasionally positively but sometimes ending in despair—new ones flow in. When I hold my constituency advice bureaux, as I have done on the past two Saturdays, a preponderance of the cases I receive are immigration cases, and a substantial proportion of those who come to me are constituents of Pakistani or Bengali origin—although they do not all come from there; others are of African origin and so on. However, when I read in the newspapers, as I have done in the past few days, about a survey showing that people of Pakistani origin feel more British than anybody else in the country, I wonder how long it will last, given that the immigration service treats them as heartlessly, ineffectively, ineffectually and inefficiently as it does today.
I have dealt with Home Secretaries ever since I entered the House in 1970, but I do not deal with this Home Secretary because she is so arrogant that, unlike any other Home Secretary with whom I have corresponded, she will not touch an individual immigration case. For example, Douglas Hurd, among many other Tory Home Secretaries with whom I have had dealings, would not only deal with cases himself but, if I asked to see him about a case, which I rarely did, would immediately agree to see me. On one occasion, a man under a deportation notice said to me, “Let me see the Home Secretary so that he can tell me to my face why he is deporting me.” Douglas Hurd saw him, considered the case and reversed the decision, and that man is now living happily in Manchester with his family, who are now considerably grown-up. That was what Tory Home Secretaries such as Douglas Hurd, William Whitelaw, even Leon Brittan, were like. This Home Secretary believes she is too important to do what Douglas Hurd, Willie Whitelaw, Leon Brittan—and David Waddington and others—did.
Keith Vaz: In fact, given the abolition of the right of appeal, Members will want to go to Ministers much more often—that will delay Ministers and take up an enormous amount of their time—because there is nowhere else for them to go. They will be unable to go to the appeals system; they will have to go to Ministers.
Sir Gerald Kaufman: I accept that completely, but if my right hon. Friend will forgive me for apparently being patronising, he should not hope for too much from that process—in so far as it is a process.
It is not simply that the policy is a hard, harsh policy; individual cases are dealt with with a level of incompetence that would not be tolerated in pretty well any other area of activity. For example, last week the Minister for Immigration sent me a telephone number for a constituent to use when his DNA test had been completed—and it was completed successfully, I might say. The telephone number was wrong. That came from the Minister’s office, and with his signature. The Minister sometimes wonders why I insist on having my cases dealt with by a Minister. The answer is that the UK Border Agency is an agency, and a Minister’s signature on a letter is what a Member of Parliament has the right to have. We have only two rights: freedom of speech, within procedure, in this House; and access to Ministers. If we do not have those, we might as well not be here.
Let me give the House just a few examples of the botching that has gone on in cases I have dealt with. On 17 May, the Minister for Immigration wrote to me about a particular person, saying that a decision will be made on his application within the next four weeks. He came to me on Saturday, six weeks after that promise was made—no decision. Another constituent was told in a letter from the Minister that her application would be concluded within three months, yet it was not. What on earth is the point of him giving these specific commitments if they are to be broken?
Here is another one. The Minister wrote to me on 12 December 2011, saying that the case in question would be decided by the end of that month. By my calculation, we are into July 2012: no decision on that, after a promise by the Minister.
Richard Fuller: I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for recounting stories that I think a number of us hear in our constituency surgeries. I am a new Member, having joined the House in 2010, but does he, like me, scratch his head at the number of constituents who have come to this country and have been waiting for many years for their cases to be resolved? What would he say, on reflection, about the attitude of the last Government in dealing with such cases as expeditiously as he is requesting this Government to do?
Sir Gerald Kaufman: I would be the first to say that it was not good enough. I remember when Charles Clarke was appointed Home Secretary. I ran into him in the Members’ Lobby, from which my office is 40 seconds away. I said, “I want you to come up to my office.” He did, and I showed him my special immigration file. I said, “I cannot lift it out of the filing cabinet. I expect, under your Home Secretaryship, to be able to lift the file.” It was not as good as it should have been. There were Ministers in that Government, including Charles Clarke and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who were personally accessible if there was a problem I wanted to discuss with them.
However, I have to tell the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) that when I was gathering these cases to present to the House this afternoon, I had to use two files because my filing cabinet is now so full that I have to divide the cases into two, so that my secretary can lift one file or the other. I am not saying that it was paradise under the Labour Government by any means; what I am saying—I do not want to patronise the hon. Gentleman, but I do have the experience—is that things are far worse now.
Let me give one more example of a constituent whom the Home Secretary wrote to me about.
Mr Winnick: Will my right hon. Friend allow me?
Sir Gerald Kaufman: I will always give way to my hon. Friend.
Mr Winnick: The Home Affairs Committee was critical of the Labour Government at the time, although the situation was not as bad as it is now. But of course it was the last Labour Government who brought back the right of appeal.
Sir Gerald Kaufman: Of course it was, and they did so under pressure from a lot of us, including my hon. Friend and me. One of the problems, to which I will come in a moment, is that even now the right of appeal of itself may not necessarily provide a solution to the problem.
Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Sir Gerald Kaufman: If I may, I will give a further example, and then of course I will give way to my hon. Friend.
A woman came to see me recently saying that she had been to the Border Agency office at Dallas Court, in Salford, and was told by a man called Ken that it was pointless for her to apply for indefinite leave to remain because she would be refused. She then asked him what she was supposed to do. He told her to go to her Member of Parliament. I wrote to the Home Secretary to ask what I was supposed to do, given that the Border Agency had told her that any application from her would be refused. I have yet to receive a reply to that letter, which I wrote on 21 May. I tabled a question about it and was told that a reply had been sent, but I have not received one. What on earth is a Member of Parliament supposed to do when a Border Agency official says that they have to solve their constituent’s problem? Let me make it clear: if I were allowed to solve these problems, I would happily do so, and life would be a great deal more tranquil for a lot of my constituents.
Seema Malhotra: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the success rate of appeals against refusals of family visitor visas underlines concerns about the quality of initial decision making? For example, in 2010 almost 10% of family visit visas were issued after an appeal had been lodged. Any conversation about the removal of a right of appeal should be on the back of evidence that no decisions are being overturned.
Sir Gerald Kaufman: My hon. Friend is perfectly right; indeed, her intervention brings me to my next point, concerning visits.
One of the things about my Muslim constituents in particular—but not only my Muslim constituents—is that they have a very strong sense of family. I get case after case of somebody wanting to come here as a wedding guest but is turned down; and even with the right of appeal, the appeal process would be far longer than the period until the date of the wedding.
I raised one case in Prime Minister’s questions—the only question I have asked this Prime Minister—which involved a young woman in my constituency who wanted her 72-year-old grandmother to come to her wedding. Her grandmother was turned down, one of the reasons being that if she came here, she would try to get a job. Seventy-two years old; never left Pakistan in her life; cannot speak English; unemployment in my constituency at 10.7%—and this cunning old lady was going to twist her granddaughter’s wedding into an opportunity to get a job.
Mr Winnick: Perhaps by becoming an MP.
Sir Gerald Kaufman: She would be welcome.
I have of course had several wedding cases, like other hon. Members who have had similar experiences. I had a case the other day of a woman with a doctorate who wanted her mother to come from Pakistan for her graduation ceremony. I wrote to the Minister. When I really get the bit between my teeth, I do not simply write a letter and put it in the post; we actually use fax or e-mail—we have adopted these modern devices to try to get things speeded up. However, the mother of the lady concerned never got to her graduation ceremony. That is a lack in both their lives. What kind of human beings are they in the Border Agency that they do not take into account things of the heart and things of sentiment? That is what troubles me most about this issue. I also have a case of somebody who wants to come as a living kidney donor to a relative here. He has applied twice. The first time he was turned down—a living kidney donor!—and he has now applied again. I would be very interested to see what response I get this time.
One of the consequences of the way in which immigration administration is making a misery of the lives of many of my constituents is that before they come to me, or simultaneously with coming to me, they go to solicitors. I want to say this here and now: we have in the city of Manchester some of the most predatory and greedy solicitors. It is an utter disgrace. They take up a case, do nothing about it and then send the constituent to me to see whether I can sort it out. I wish that something could be done to deal with these greedy thieves, who deal with people who do not have much money anyhow. We do not have affluence in my constituency; we have deprivation. That is why, in cases such as that which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East spoke about, involving somebody coming for a wedding being turned down, the advice is not to appeal—that would take month upon month—but to make a new application. That was what I was advised in the case of the young woman with the 72-year-old grandmother, but that would have cost them a lot of money. They do not have that money: they have already spent it once.
I welcome the opportunity of today’s debate, because I feel so utterly frustrated on behalf of my constituents—good, decent people, who want to live family lives, but who are prevented from doing so—and by a Government who are so utterly incompetent. If the Home Secretary was so busy that a person like me was just too trivial for her to deal with, because she was pursuing other, valuable and useful policies, I might just accept that, egoist though I am. However, we have had information this week that, because of her cuts, Greater Manchester police force says that it will not be able to cope with riots, if there are any this summer—and there might well be: constituents were talking to me about their fear of this at the weekend. I feel very strongly indeed about many of the across-the-board policies that this Government pursue, but one that strikes right at the heart of good, decent, family people is their immigration policy and its administration. It is about time it was changed.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I am aware that we are due to start the next item at 4 o’clock. Owing to the numbers who wish to catch my eye, I suggest a limit of around eight minutes, which should enable us to get everybody in.
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): It is a pleasure to listen to the contributions to this debate from both sides of the House and to make my own. I do so as someone who has been an immigrant most of his life—I left the country in 1986, before coming back to seek to represent the good people of Bedford and Kempston in 2004—and as a son of Bedford. Bedford is probably the most ethnically diverse, multicultural town in the country, and I am extraordinarily proud to be its representative. I also speak in this debate as a full supporter of this Government’s efforts to restore confidence in our immigration system.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you rightly pointed out at the beginning of the debate that we would have the opportunity to debate not only the estimates, but the specifics of the Home Affairs Committee’s report. If I may, however, I would like to move in a slightly different direction and review the morality of the decisions we make about immigration, which have led to us spending £1 billion a year and involving 12,000 people in an apparatus to ensure that our borders are secure and that people’s confidence in immigration is restored. I say that because the situation we are now in is a consequence of the policies and actions taken over a long period, and it has grown over time. If one looks at the scale of the issue in terms of immigration control, at the longevity of its relevance and also, if I may say so, at the arrogant dismissal of the issue for so long, one can see the context in which we are evaluating the UK Border Agency, which is essentially a child of those circumstances and those facts.
It is important for us to look at the reasons why concerns about immigration reached such a high level and why we are devoting such substantial resources to immigration control. Was it a matter of purpose or a matter of incompetence over a number of years, and who is to blame? Should we blame the bureaucrats and the agents, or should we blame the political masters? I do not wish to get into the commentary by Andrew Neather from a couple of years ago about the last Government’s deliberate policy to make the UK a multicultural society or the fact that they were not straight with the British people about that, but it strikes at our understanding of the context in which we will now ask for decisions to be made by this Home Secretary and this Minister for Immigration.
My general feeling, being a new Member of Parliament, is this. How on earth did we get into this position, where so many of my constituents come to me with such heart-wrenching stories of how their lives have been eviscerated by this country’s utter incompetence, over a long period, in sorting out its immigration? It hurts me in my heart to have to look at people who have suffered torture, had to flee their own countries and had to live under the wire of suspicion having to deal with not being able to guarantee that they can make a living while the system works out what should happen with their lives. It pains me, as a member of our country, to think what that says about the United Kingdom.
In the short time I have, let me take hon. Members through a couple of those points. The term “asylum seeker” used to be a badge of honour, but now we take it to be a token of shame to be bandied about in the tabloids and used as a reason for making excuses. The UK used to be seen as a beacon of liberty for asylum seekers. We are making changes in that regard, and I am not sure that all those changes are right.
I welcome fast-track detention as a policy, but I say to the Minister that if we are going to take people through a process quickly, let us assume that each of them has a valid case. In the short period that they have, let us give them the best counsel, the best lawyers and the best psychiatric help, so that we can make that evaluation according to the highest standards that people expect from a free society such as the United Kingdom.
Nicola Blackwood: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to take into account the possibility that those who go through that process might have been the victims of torture, and that we should implement rule 35 effectively?
Richard Fuller: Absolutely. I agree with what my hon. Friend says about being aware of that. Some Members might have heard, at the meeting held to discuss a report on fast-track detention, about the refugee from Uganda who had had to stand in a queue in an open room and explain to an immigration officer how he had been raped, and why he was claiming asylum. We must bring to an end such unfair and ineffective processes if we are to restore our sense of decency.
The policy has also led to the detention of the innocent. How did we manage to set up a policy that results in children being put into prison? What on earth were the previous Government thinking when they permitted that to happen? Why do we continue to keep pregnant women in detention? The Independent Monitoring Board’s report on Yarl’s Wood stated that it wanted the policy on the detention of pregnant women to be reviewed, and that, in the interim, detention should be the last resort. However, according to information that I have received from Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, there were cases of women who were 35 weeks pregnant being removed from Yarl’s Wood last month. I point this out to the Minister not because I am ashamed of what he is doing—I am proud of what he is doing to control immigration—but to illustrate how far we have allowed our morality to be debased by losing control over the system.
Let me deal with detention without trial. This country is supposed to be the home of habeas corpus, yet to my simple way of thinking we seem to be ignoring that when dealing with people who come here for immigration purposes. Studies show that there are 52 people in our immigration detention centres who have been detained for more than a year, and 16 who have been detained for more than two years. I understand the process issues, and I am sympathetic to the Minister on those, but if I want to hold my country to the highest standards, I cannot be satisfied unless the practice of detention without trial is brought to a conclusion. Will the Minister consider introducing a maximum detention period for people being detained under the immigration rules?
Will the Minister also ensure that the Home Office implements its own policies thoroughly? The Government have rightly said that they want to introduce a better process for people who have survived torture, who, according to the rules, are not deemed suitable for fast-tracking or detention. To avoid detention, however, such people are supposed to have their evidence to hand. The problem with that policy is that it is very hard for them to have that evidence to hand when they are assessed. It takes time to get it together. The pamphlet from Medical Justice, “The Second Torture”, gives 50 examples of people who have suffered torture but who have not been permitted to follow the appropriate process because the Home Office is not fulfilling its obligations.
Many hon. Members have talked about individual constituency cases of people who have lived under these policies and been in hiding. A gentleman who came to my office had been here since 1996. He had sought an opportunity to stay in this country, and received it in 2011, but the delays meant that he had been unable to see his terminally ill grandfather. I also met two constituents who had fled Zimbabwe. It is not easy for anyone who flees from Zimbabwe to get their documents from that country, so of course their documents will be false. When the marks of torture and shackles are still clearly visible on their legs, however, that should be sufficient evidence in itself. I ask my Minister to sort out this mess on immigration, and to seek to reassert the highest principles of British justice, British fairness and British compassion.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): In addressing the subject of this debate, we must always remember that it involves families, and that is what I shall concentrate on today. Those families often pay huge fees. The £1,800 that it will cost a spouse to get settlement in this country is 10% of the income that the sponsor needs for the spouse to qualify. There is a lot of money involved, and those people have a right to a decent service. At the moment, however, they are not getting it.
I readily admit that the problem is not new; it has not developed under this Government. Indeed, when I was first elected in 1997, I remember discovering the antecedent of the controlled archive. It was in a room in the bottom of a building in Croydon, where the air was so poisonous that staff could not go in. It contained a huge heap of files that had been amassed there, and nobody knew what they were. So this is a long-standing problem.
We need to address the problems of inefficiency and the bad ways in which the system works, and I want to use the debate to make a series of specific requests of the Minister. Even though he and I do not agree on the entirety of the policy, I believe that he will be able to meet those requests. The first relates to dealing with legacy cases. At the moment, all the cases involving those who are to be granted indefinite or discretionary leave have to be checked by security and by the police national computer—and quite right, too. Unfortunately, when the UK Border Agency asks for the information, further checks have to be carried out, and photographs, vignettes and biometrics have to be obtained. That process often takes so long that the security clearance, which last only three months, has expired by the time it has been completed. I ask the Minister to instruct his staff to grant leave in such circumstances none the less. When the problem is the result of inefficiency in the system and involves further rounds of checks and further delays, let us not make his staff carry out those further checks and go through those further delays, using up time and capacity that they do not have.
My second point is one that I am sure many hon. Members will be familiar with from their constituencies. It relates to cases in which a woman—it is usually, but not always, a woman—has been deceived by a partner and been abandoned the day after he is granted indefinite leave to remain. Under the previous Government, after a long struggle, I managed to persuade the then Minister that such women should get a proper response when they requested information on their husbands’ immigration status and on what the Home Office was going to do about their situation. I got an agreement on that, and for a very short time, Ministers would write not only to me to tell me what was happening with the case, but to the women who had complained. That has now stopped.
I put it to the Minister that reinstating that practice would a much more effective means than the “dobbing-in” system on the Home Office website, because those women have specific information about their cheating spouses. He should give them the respect of a full response to their inquiries. He should also follow up those inquiries. In my view, it would be perfectly possible under the immigration rules to curtail the leave of husbands who had behaved in the way that I have described, on the grounds that their presence in the UK would not be conducive to the public good, particularly if—as is often the case—they had a record of being vicious and violent towards their spouses. I would be really grateful if the Minister made that commitment today. I think that my request is fairly straightforward, and reinstating that practice would go with the grain of what he has been saying about using intelligence.
My next point is about the new immigration rules, which are due to come into force next week. I remember, when I was director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, getting a telephone call from a country solicitor who said, “I’ve got this person here and I’ve got the Immigration Act in front of me, and it refers to these things called the immigration rules. What are they?” I told him, and I felt rather scared that that person thought he was qualified to give immigration advice. Actually, he was being honest. He was trying to find out the best advice to give his client, but—as other hon. Members have pointed out—there are solicitors who are not in the least bit honest.
Actually, even the honest solicitors are going to find these new immigration rules completely incomprehensible. There is no statement of changes in the immigration rules; they are not numbered; there are typographical and other errors in them. I do not agree with their content, but if I were the Minister, I would say, “We aren’t going to bring them into force until we have done them properly.” Frankly, they are not proper at present. I would like the Minister simply to say that he will not bring them into force until he has got rid of the errors. I pray against them and hope he will not introduce them, but from his own point of view, if he does not get them right, he will make much more work for his officials, who will be constantly subject to representations and appeals because of the confusion that arises. Speaking as someone who has dealt with these issues for some 30 years, I have to say in the context of today’s discussion about the administration of the UK Border Agency that if the Minister persists in implementing these rules at this point—irrespective of whether they are the right thing to do in the long term—he will create much more unnecessary work for his people.
John McDonnell: Like me, my hon. Friend has prayed against the rules. Today is not the time to debate them in any detail, but does she agree that the Government should now give us the opportunity to debate the rules thoroughly on the Floor of the House?
Fiona Mactaggart: I think it would be helpful to do so, but in a way that is not the point here. The point is that if the Minister accepts that there are errors in the draft—I know that they are errors and not deliberate—he should take the opportunity to withdraw the rules until they can be remedied, to ensure that the immigration system is properly administered. Given the problems of administration—the queues at Heathrow and other issues, and the problem with posts overseas where we have had good reports from the independent chief inspector responsible for entry clearance, highlighting that the wrong decisions have been made—perhaps the Minister could do something about them.
One thing I have learned from my long involvement in these issues is that the biggest problem is trying to get the Home Office administration to do what it says on the tin—to do what the rules say to make sure that the administration is effective and efficient. It is not, and it has not been for decades. The simplest thing to do would be to try to drive out unnecessary processes and to use the people subject to immigration control as allies in making the system more efficient. The vast majority of people who are trying to join their families here or to visit Britain are trying to do the right thing. If we can work in a way whereby the people trying to do the right thing can help to make the system more efficient, we could envisage a system in which not everyone was subject to the degradation—frankly, it is degradation—that is a product of the gross inefficiency and bureaucracy of that system.
I have made some specific proposals, and if the Minister were to say yes to them today, we could take a couple of little steps in that direction. Many more are needed.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a few short points in the debate. My first is about the structural changes taking place within the UK Border Agency. Does the Minister have strong views about these proposals? In his view, will they make a significant contribution to making UKBA an organisation or agency that is fit for purpose? He will be aware of the specific changes to operational areas, with specific directors and cross-cutting directorates being established.
The Select Committee on Home Affairs has played a central role in tracking developments at UKBA over recent years. I refer briefly to the 15th report published in November last year. That report rightly identifies initial decision making as central to much of what we are debating and covers appeals, which are clearly a two-way process. Yes, officials may well make wrong decisions, but it is equally clear from the information I have received that appeals are often successful because the information was not supplied correctly the first time round. The appeal was not based on a decision, but was one in which supplementary information led to a positive outcome. Making the right decision at the outset is key, as is ensuring that the right information is supplied by applicants.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward), who is no longer in his place but will return shortly, highlighted the importance of intelligence, and I certainly support what he said. When people come to MPs with intelligence about the activities of individuals who they think are here illegitimately, feedback is essential so that constituents can see that some action has been taken as a result. I appreciate the difficulties associated with data protection when providing feedback that is specific to an individual case, but we need to ensure that feedback is provided in some shape or form.
On correspondence between the MPs and the UKBA, contrary to what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said, my experience suggests that things have improved. They are not perfect, but there is no doubt about the improvement, and my staff would confirm that. I no longer experience the sort of thing that happened back in 1997, when many people I saw in my surgery had been in the UK for perhaps 10 years, yet their status had still not been determined. That is changing, which does not mean that things are perfect.
What MPs do quite successfully is to use individual cases to identify areas with a pattern of poor performance. I will not reel off a long list of individual cases, but I shall refer to one case of a family—I shall call them Mr and Mrs J—who were granted visas on appeal in February last year in Colombo, but who have still not received them. I do not know whether a specific problem in Colombo has caused that to happen, but if such cases help to identify an issue in a particular mission, I hope that the Government would respond.
Fiona Mactaggart: May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that this is not just specific to Colombo? This pattern is common; I have a number of such cases in Islamabad, for example.
Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, which shows that it is essential for us collectively to identify such problems; we might believe that these are individual cases, but when the feedback comes in from all MPs, we see that the issue is a much wider one.
A number of Members have referred to data. Clearly, without strong data, it is difficult to determine whether policy is effective. I greatly welcome the fact that, following pressure from the Liberal Democrats on an issue that we have been running with for a number of years, exit checks will be reintroduced. Ultimately, that is the only way to secure high-quality data that can effectively inform debate.
On the problem of backlogs, I am sure the Minister will have received the briefing from the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, which many of us, too, have received for today’s debate. The briefing refers to the definition of a review, and it challenges the UKBA statement that reviews have been carried out in respect of all asylum backlog cases. That might involve a definitional issue involving what constitutes a review. A paper review may involve no contact with either the legal representatives or the individual who is the subject of the review. In any event, the ILPA is concerned about whether every case has been reviewed.
I do not know whether the Minister was quoted accurately when he was reported to have said:
“The UK has been forced to launch a global charm offensive to convince foreign students it is not against immigration”.
The quotation comes from a BBC report headed “Please come to UK”. The Minister is shaking his head, so it appears it that is not an accurate representation of what he said. Whether it is or not, however, I should like him to tell me whether the capacity exists to make what I accept is a difficult distinction between students who, having applied to attend a college here quite legitimately, find that between their application and their arrival the college has been shut down—for perfectly legitimate reasons—and has taken their money but will not give them what they wanted, and those who are not students but have colluded to come here for purposes other than study. It would be helpful to be able to distinguish such people from students who fall foul of the rules through no fault of their own.
Mr Winnick: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was going to mention this, but may I put to him the question that I put earlier to his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward)? If he and his party believe that the appeals system is right for visitors, what input, if any, is the coalition receiving from his party on the issue?
Tom Brake: We have made written representations, but the hon. Gentleman may not have heard something that I said earlier. The most significant thing that the Government can do on behalf of everyone—the UKBA, the Government and, indeed, applicants—is ensure that the correct decisions are made the first time round.
The ILPA has drawn Members’ attention to changes made in October 2010 to the policy on suitability for detention. It alleges that conditions have worsened considerably, especially for people with serious medical conditions. Has the Minister had any dialogue with the UKBA on the subject, and is he satisfied that the rules ensure that a person’s health can be taken into account?
I shall not go into my final point in any great detail, because it has already been raised in the context of HC 194 “Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules”. Concern has been expressed not just about typographical errors, but about instances in which the understanding of the rules may have been different from what their intention now appears to be. The issue is too detailed for the Minister to respond now, but I hope that he will be able to clarify the Government’s position. I know that he has the relevant documentation.
I think that the coalition Government have made progress, particularly, I am pleased to say, on the issue of child detention, which was mentioned earlier. However, I accept that they still have a considerable distance to go.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Given that Heathrow is in my constituency, along with the two detention centres of Harmsworth and Colnbrook, dealing with these issues constitutes the daily work of my office, not just during the day but into the night and at weekends, because, like every other Member’s office, we are inundated at the moment. That was reflected in the speeches of my right hon. Friends the Members for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).
The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) raised the issue of compliance with rule 35. I have met representatives of people whom I would describe as constituents, because they have been detained in my constituency, who have been victims of torture and whose circumstances have been affected deleteriously by their detention. That continues. Hunger strikes are currently taking place in detention centres. People who have come here to seek asylum as a result of torture and the loss of human rights have been denied it, have been locked up, and are now refusing food. Some are in a serious condition.
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) mentioned the detention of children. The independent monitoring board produced a report about Heathrow’s short-term holding facilities at the beginning of the year. I pay tribute to the volunteers on the board for their excellent work and the commitment that they demonstrate. The report made a range of recommendations. It said that the children’s short-term holding facilities were a disgrace. Children had to witness the detention and forced deportation of people—scenes that no child should witness. I hope that the Minister will report that many of the board’s recommendations have now been implemented.
Performing tasks such as controlling our borders and processing applications for asylum or for visas requires staff to undertake that work. When they took office, the Government decided to cut 8,500 Home Office jobs and 22% of the staff at the UKBA. That, has inevitably led to massive queues at ports and airports, weaker security, huge backlogs of casework and, in some areas, an almost non-existent Customs operation. Last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy)—who is not in the Chamber now—asked the Government to explain the rationale of the cuts and how they had been implemented in the Department. It seems that a head count was taken and a percentage cut was made with no real management. What we are seeing now is virtual panic management, in terms of both control of the borders and the case load itself.
Let me give one stark example. I have constituents who work at Heathrow, and sometimes anonymous letters are pushed through my door. I found the latest among my correspondence last weekend. It states:
“I am writing to you anonymously as identifying myself will cause me to get into trouble with my employers.
I want to bring to your attention that over the course of the last few weeks, on at least six separate occasions, UKBA officers at Heathrow Airport have missed disembarking subjects who are of interest to the security services for terrorism matters. These subjects are commonly referred to as SX subjects. They should have been identified upon presentation of their passport to UKBA officers and then referred on to the security service and police, but this has not happened.
This comes at a time when UKBA have had to draft in officers from different areas to make up the shortfall in frontline staff, following the recent political and media pressure regarding queue times. Unfortunately they have had to use staff with little or no training (such as MOD police and office staff) and in some cases bring back people who retired many years ago and are very out of touch with modern working practices. It is inevitable that with these elastoplast measures, mistakes are going to happen.”
I receive such reports from staff regularly. When the Minister and I met representatives of the Public and Commercial Services Union last week, they made clear that morale was at rock bottom, particularly at Heathrow. Staff are being dragged in from all over the country. High-grade staff at grade 6 and grade 7 are working unlimited overtime just to plug the gaps. Where have they been brought from? Customs.
Let me give the House an example that we were given last week. For the week beginning 30 April, the Felixstowe-based team responsible for ro-ro freight control was sent to Heathrow; there was no replacement cover. The following week, the Felixstowe-based team responsible for general maritime and general aviation controls at small ports and airports was reassigned to Heathrow. That meant that one of eight detection teams, which were already understaffed by 30%, was completely absent. I think that the UKBA is in turmoil. In addition to the failure to control our borders because of lack of staff, we are putting the country at risk, just as the Olympics are about to take place and we will have the largest influx of people into the country for decades.
On the backlogs of immigration and asylum casework, the Minister will no doubt assure us that additional staff are being taken on. We now hear that Serco has offered its services free of charge for six months to tackle some of this backlog. Some of us remember that it was Serco incompetence—lost files and so forth—that caused most of the backlog that we experienced a number of years ago.
The current situation is as follows: chaotic management; staff being bussed or flown in from all over the country who are either untrained or not adequately trained to do the border control job; and a backlog of immigration and asylum casework building up at the Home Office. The Government response is to try to change the rules, which will not deter people from making applications at all. It will also not deter people from wanting to make some form of appeal, but, as Members have said, the appeal will come to MPs, rather than go through the process. We will be inundated, therefore. We will be inundated with the pleas and cries of people just for fairness, so that their families can visit them and they can live and celebrate normal family life, including weddings and other celebrations.
We have reached the stage where Public and Commercial Services Union members are balloting on industrial action because their morale is so low. They feel that they have gone through a pay freeze for a number of years and are now faced with intolerable pressures—including bullying and victimisation—from management. They feel that they are being provoked to do whatever they can to defend themselves, and what they can do is take industrial action to highlight this issue and force management and Ministers to the negotiating table to recognise the realities.
More staff are needed, and they are needed immediately—the Government are recruiting some, but not enough. A change in the industrial relations atmosphere is also needed, as is an end to the privatisation and an acceptance that people need to be rewarded for the work they do. There must be respect for those at the front line. They must be listened to; people such as my constituents who send anonymous letters, because they know no other way of whistleblowing or raising issues without being victimised by management, must be listened to.
I am fearful about what might happen over the next few months because of the Government’s mismanagement of this process. I criticised the last Government, but this mess is even bigger than the mess was back then.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): The issue we are debating is very important, and I thank the Home Affairs Committee for its continuing work on it. I encourage it to continue monitoring the work of the UK Border Agency. I am also grateful to the Minister for his active engagement with this issue, and with me as a constituency MP when I have brought cases to his attention or to the attention of his staff.
My general analysis is somewhat different from that of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), as I do not think that under the last Government we were anywhere near nirvana in respect of immigration and asylum cases. The situation is considerably better now than it was under the last Labour Government. This has been a huge and intractable issue for the Home Office over many years. I am grateful for the progress that has been made, but that does not mean that I in any way think the UKBA or the Government have fully addressed all the problems.
Although we are talking about the UKBA, what we are actually talking about is people. I shall therefore refer to some people. First, I shall mention the two people in my office who every day try to unravel the knots of other people’s family lives when dealing with asylum and immigration cases. Magali Tang and James Harper are wonderful public servants—working for me as an MP—and they are hugely valued by our constituents. When I last checked a year or two ago, I was either first or second in the league table of Members who brought Home Office-related immigration and asylum constituency issues to the authorities. I have no idea where I am in the league table now, and that does not matter, but I do know that a large volume of such work gets done. Some 40% of the work that comes before my constituency office is Home Office-related, and we try to give a good service.
Achieving that depends on the individuals at the other end of the process as well—on the personality of the account manager. I pay tribute to Claire Shacklock who previously did the job for us in Southwark, when Southwark was an area on its own, and I pay tribute to her successor, Helen O’Brien, who is the account manager in Lambeth, Bexley, Greenwich and Southwark. After the handover, it took a little while for us to get the communication established and working well. It is now working well, and her staff are beginning to understand what we expect and are beginning to deliver. That required us to be quite gruff with them, however. We had to tell them what they needed to do and make them understand the urgency of some of the cases.
I asked my constituency team to tell me the three key issues. The first of them was post-study work visas. This is what my team said:
“This route is being closed and so everyone has applied at once, and this has thrown the system into chaos. We have had between 15-20 cases in the last month of people who have been waiting around 3 months, when the published waiting time is 1 month. They are stuck as they can’t work and some people are losing accommodation/job offers because of the delay. Why did the UKBA not see this coming and what are they doing to make sure the backlog is cleared quickly?”
The second issue was reconsideration requests, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) mentioned. My team said:
“Currently, when people make ‘in country’ applications for leave to remain and these are refused without a right of appeal, applicants can ask the UKBA to ‘reconsider’ the decision. This was always an informal process but it was accepted that in general the UKBA would reconsider a case once. It seems that a backlog of reconsideration requests has built up and now the UKBA are saying they are reviewing how they deal with these requests. What does this mean? Are they going to stop reconsidering cases”— or define what a “reconsideration” is?
“If so, they need to say so to people clearly. In one case we had recently, a woman who had been told her reconsideration request had been received later received a letter from Serco saying that according to the UKBA, she had no basis of stay and should leave immediately.”
The left hand and the right hand were clearly not co-ordinated, which was very “confusing” as the Serco letter “didn’t refer to her reconsideration request, which she felt was still outstanding. If the UKBA are going to stop reconsidering, they must surely explain this clearly to people, not just get Serco to send them letters telling them to go home.”
I hope it does not stop reconsidering; I hope there is a reconsideration process, and we know what it is and how it works.
The third issue my team raised was the UKBA website, which “despite recent re-modelling, is still not well organised or user friendly, and constituents regularly report this to us. It needs to use clearer, non-technical English wherever possible and be better laid out. The DirectGov website is a good example of how a website can be user friendly, as is NHS Direct (medical advice online). There are always links saying ‘do you need help with x....if so click here…’, ‘was this what you were looking for?’…that sort of thing, and the English is very good and accessible. The UKBA website lags a long way behind these websites.”
It surely cannot be beyond the wit of Government, with all their technical advisers and expertise, to get that sorted out. Please can it be sorted out soon?
I would now like to make a few points of my own. As has been said, there are still a huge number of really rubbish legal advisers and solicitors. I am weekly, if not daily, rescuing people from having to pay considerable sums that they do not have for so-called advice, often bad, telling them to take action they do not need to take and that will not produce any positive results. That gives them false hope. They are also often asked to pay for a service that is never given because the case in question is either not dealt with at all or not soon enough to be of any use. Please can the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner get a grip and do its job properly? It is still not effective. It does not clamp down on bad advice; it tackles only crime and maladministration. That is not good enough. I should not have to be perpetually writing to these so-called solicitors or so-called advisers saying, “I want the money to be given back to my constituent because you haven’t done anything.” That is a scandal and it needs to be addressed.
The problem of so-called bogus colleges is not as bad as it was but I am not persuaded that there are not still some that do not produce the service they advertise. I encourage the Government to continue to be relentless in such cases. I want to encourage more students to come to this country and I think the Government understand the benefits of that—the universities and colleges certainly do—but that cause will not be helped if bogus colleges continue.
My penultimate point is to ask whether we can please not send people back to places such as Sri Lanka if they are Tamils whose life and liberty are likely to be at risk? I still think that the Home Office is not sensitive enough in such cases and I want a review of cases where there are historic and current conflicts.
Finally, I would like to help people to see the good side of some of the work done by those people with us. On Saturday, I went to the wedding of Sheku Jalloh and Raphaëlle de Joffrey. Sheku came to see me when he was in his teens as a Liberian asylum seeker and refugee. He has now married a Swiss graduate whom he met here, they have settled down and they are a good news story. There are lots of good news stories—
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order.
Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate on the work of the UK Border Agency. I am a member of the Home Affairs Committee and, as our Chair has said, we continue to scrutinise the work of the agency. I should point out that, although I might talk about the agency, it cannot and should not be separated from the Home Office. We have been very keen as a Committee to stress that point through our reports.
In our most recent report, we drew attention to the worryingly high levels of decisions that are overturned on appeal, in which applicants successfully challenge the initial decisions made by UKBA. Some right hon. and hon. Members have talked about that this afternoon. I intend to concentrate on one particular aspect of that question: women’s asylum cases and the fact that the initial decisions are not always the right ones.
UKBA rightly wants decisions to be made as quickly as possible, and of course I support that, but there is always a balance to be struck between speed and quality in the decision-making process and I am not sure that we always get it right. I remain seriously concerned about the quality of decision making on women’s asylum claims at the initial stage. Many women claiming asylum in the UK are fleeing gender-based persecution and have experienced sexual violence, and we know that rape is all too often used as a weapon of war. In 2010, of the 18,000 people claiming asylum in the UK only a third were women, but the appeal rate at tribunal is higher for women than for men according to the most recent Home Office figures that are available.
I am by no means suggesting that women should receive preferential treatment or that their claims should take precedence, but it is important that they receive a fair hearing and that there is recognition of the experiences women have when they come to the UK and of those they have had, including torture, and of how those experiences can differ from those of men. In order for that to happen, the Home Office and the UKBA need to make a number of changes, becoming more responsive and gender-sensitive in their work. I commend them for the work they have done so far. They have worked with Asylum Aid and other organisations to make some important changes, but there is still much to do.
First, female interviewers and interpreters should be available for women applicants. I know that that is meant to happen, but it does not always happen. Female applicants are understandably reluctant to talk openly about experiences of sexual violence, but it can become impossible if a man is in the room because a female interviewer or interpreter is not available. Sometimes, women bring children with them to the initial interview or to follow-up interviews and it is often wholly inappropriate for them to be expected to discuss experiences of sexual violence in front of their children.
The barriers mean that women do not always disclose sexual violence at interview, and if they do so later or submit additional evidence, it can be viewed by the UKBA as an attempt to be dishonest or to deceive. Those barriers aside, trauma and the nature of the violence can make it exceptionally difficult for women to be fully open immediately with people who are strangers to them. A recent report by Women for Refugee Women has highlighted those problems.
I would also suggest that the UKBA’s country of origin information should be developed further to include additional information on the position of women in-country. The agency has gender guidelines, but it is not always clear whether those guidelines and the country of origin information are followed as well as they could be by decision makers. I also believe that it is important that judges who sit on immigration tribunals should be offered appropriate training on gender-based persecution so that they fully understand the experiences of the women before them at tribunal.
I know that the Home Office wants to see a “right first time” approach. I agree and I hope that I have set out some areas where I believe that that could be supported. All asylum seekers deserve a fair hearing. Many will have their applications legitimately refused, but they deserve that fair hearing. A considerable cost to the taxpayer is associated with decisions that are not right first time and the National Audit Office has identified some of those costs. I believe that we could make significant savings if we improved the quality of the decision making at the initial stage.
There is of course a human cost to the individual applicant, but making improvements to the decision-making process also makes economic sense. I hope that the Government will carefully consider the changes that can be made to bring about a system that is fairer not just to the applicant but to us all, including the UK taxpayer.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): UKBA—the United Kingdom Borders Agency—might have a UK-wide remit, but it does not particularly serve Scotland. In Scotland, we have a different range of issues, challenges and priorities and the UKBA cannot even start to deal with our priorities.
We have issues to do with immigration and population, particularly concerning demography, and when I get to my feet I always try to set out why things are different in Scotland. I shall try to do it once again so that the House can more clearly understand. We occupy just over a third of the landmass of the UK but we have 8.4% of the population. We are one of the least densely populated parts of western Europe. Of course we need a different approach to immigration and our border agency, but will this Government consider any sort of policy that is regional or international within the UK? Not a bit of it. We have to experience the same decisions and policy as the rest of the UK and that is utter and total madness.
Our population reached 5.2 million in the course of last month, which is the highest population that Scotland has ever had. The Scottish Government issued a press release to welcome that fact. Could hon. Members imagine the UK Minister for Immigration ever putting out a press release welcoming the fact that the UK population was at an all-time high? That, more than anything, demonstrates the difference between Scotland and the UK.
What do we want from the UKBA? We want it to go away, basically. We need a specific Scottish agency which could serve our immigration priorities, our population necessities and our demographic needs. We have big problems. Our population is going up, but we do not know the medium to long-term prospects. There was a fear only a few months ago that Scotland’s population might dip below the iconic 5 million mark for the first time since the mid-20th century. That would have been a disaster for us. We have an ageing population and a shrinking working population and we need people to come to Scotland with specific skills and to meet specific requirements.
What the Government are doing to our universities is chaotic and disastrous and I want them to stop. We have more people coming to our universities from overseas than the rest of the UK; 19% of the students at Scottish universities come from overseas, as do 10% of the teaching staff. The competition for international students—the brightest and the best—is sensitive and fragile. The Government’s policies are deterring students from coming here and that is causing chaos for our universities. The Minister for Immigration has heard that from Universities Scotland, the CBI, the National Union of Students in Scotland and practically everybody who takes an interest. I ask him just to stop it. Leave our universities alone. Allow us to continue to attract the brightest and the best.
Keith Vaz: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Committee’s recommendation that student numbers should not be included in immigration statistics, because by their very nature genuine students will come and study, then return?
Pete Wishart: Quite right—why are students considered immigrants? They are here for only a few years.
We face particular issues with students at university, and I hope that the House will bear with me, as I should like to try to explain what they are. We need to continue to be a centre of excellence in Scotland. We have three universities in the top 100 in ratings around the world. Today, we have heard about the Higgs boson, whose existence was proposed by Peter Higgs, an Edinburgh university professor, which shows the excellence of Scottish universities. Those places are centres of excellence because we can attract the best and brightest, and we need to continue to be able to do so. However, we cannot do so if the new immigration rules and UKBA policies are implemented—and for what end? Students do not have recourse to public funds. They pay fees and maintenance, and have minimal impact on public services.
The benefits that we see in Scotland are not just financial, significant as they are—international students contribute £500 million to our economy. We gain so much by working with and learning from students from hundreds of countries who enhance our education system, our distinctive culture and Scottish society. We want to be at the forefront of the international marketplace for ideas and imagination. We want to continue to attract the brightest and best overseas academic talent to help build a smarter, wealthier and fairer Scotland. We want to welcome talented people to live, learn, work and remain here, but the proposals by the UK Government send out entirely the wrong message. They are already being perceived negatively overseas, deterring prospective students from applying to study across the UK, and that is particularly so in Scotland.
UKBA is simply doing its job: making tougher rules and enforcing them ever more rigidly. Perhaps the Minister for Immigration will confirm this, but I think that it is looking for a reduction of around 80,000 students across the UK—that is the target—and by heck it is going to achieve it regardless of the collateral damage to our universities. If it is bad for universities, tough luck. If we lose out on attracting the students we need for our economy and our institutions, too bad—UKBA has a job to do, and it is going to do it.
If it bad for students who now have to be relatively prosperous to come to the UK, for goodness’ sake they should not be poor and destitute if they are fleeing oppression, because in that condition they will undoubtedly remain. Our treatment of failed asylum seekers who cannot return to their country of origin because of fear of persecution or oppression should shame all in this House. There is almost positively a policy of destitution.
How is the UKBA dealing with people who are here legally?
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the vast number of people in this country feel strongly about the question of failed asylum seekers and destitution, and provide food, support and somewhere to live in churches, mosques and other places? I agree that it is an absolute disgrace that we expect people to live in complete destitution until they have got through the relevant number of years, which the Government propose to extend, before they can get residence in this country. We need to be humane about it.
Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman is spot on. I see those efforts in Scotland, particularly Glasgow, where we have a number of failed asylum seekers. We cannot return them to countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe—it would be absurd to do so—and the policy of destitution that the Government have imposed on them is a disgrace. We in the House are rightly appalled about the way in which we deal with them.
The people with whom we come into contact are those we have heard about from Members across the Chamber, and a feature of the debate has been the ultimate frustration experienced by ordinary Members of Parliament who have to deal with the UKBA. A couple of weeks ago, we had a debate on article 8 of the European convention on human rights, and several Members who attended that debate are here today. The House indulged in the usual kickabout stuff about marauding foreign rapists and murderers on every street corner who go home to their state-funded apartment and get all their swanky lawyers to invent reasons for them to stay in the UK. However, we deal with the real, mundane issues that are brought to our offices by people who suffer as a result of trying to ensure that they can stay here.
The UKBA’s job is quite simple: to stop people coming to the UK who want to come to our shores—people who should not be here should be kicked out—and to frustrate as much as possible those who are trying to go up the citizenship or immigration ladder. I have only a few minutes, but I want to mention two cases that I have dealt with. One is quite a celebrated case that the Immigration Minister may remember and shows the type of case we have to deal with. It concerns a lovely guy called Swarthwick Salins, who lived in my constituency. The UKBA, which was doing its job, looked into his bank account, and found that instead of £800, there was £740 there. There was no phone call to Swarthwick to say, “Listen, Mr Salins, there is an issue with your bank account. You’re £80 below the necessary level—this is a warning that you are £80 short.” The one and only course of action by the UKBA was to boot him out. That is the way it officiously applies the rules.
Let me explain who Swarthwick Salins is. He is a PhD student from St Andrews university, he has three Scottish children, he is a strong member of his church and a loyal member of the community. A community campaign was launched to ensure that Swarthwick Salins could remain in Perth and it was backed by practically everybody there. I would have paid the £80, and I would have put money on with the Minister, because I know that I would win the bet that he will never reduce immigration to the numbers that he wants.
The Government want to reduce immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. It ain’t going to happen. We live in an interconnected globalised world. We are here in London. One third of the people who live and work in London come from outwith the UK. That is the type of world we live in. It is like King Canute trying to hold back the tide to imagine for a minute that we are going to be able to deal with these issues. What has immigration done for London, as Monty Python would say? London is the most successful, dynamic city in the world. Let us hear a little more about the positive sides of immigration. Let us talk it up. Let us see what we can do to try to encourage a good feeling about it, because the Minister is not going to reach his targets. Regardless of an immigration-obsessed Conservative Government giving massive resources to the UKBA, the issue will never be effectively addressed.
Thankfully, in a few years, we will have control over and responsibility for our immigration policy in Scotland. We will do it differently. We will work in partnership with the rest of the UK, but we will not kick people out for £80, we will not harass overseas students who want to come and study in our universities, and we will deal with immigration damn well better than the UKBA is doing just now.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): To follow on directly from the nationalist argument that we have just heard, I presume that when Scotland is an independent country, if it is an independent country, it will join the European Union. Membership of the European Union requires that all new members are fully signed up to Schengen. Consequently, there will be a border between Scotland and England, so the Scottish border agency will spend most of its time dealing with whether people from England can go into Scotland. It is a nonsense.
A large number of right hon. and hon. Members have spoken in the debate this afternoon. It is an oddity that the debate is on a set of reports in relation to the UK Border Agency, yet it is also about spending £11 billion on the Home Office—a curiosity of the way that we do our financial expenditure in the House. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and from the hon. Members for Bedford (Richard Fuller) and for Bradford East (Mr Ward). Most notably, the greatest panjandrum of the lot, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) kicked us off, and my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) spoke as well.
In his speech my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said one thing to which I took exception. He referred to a 72-year-old as being old. I am sure he thinks a 72-year-old is not old but is just coming to the prime of their life.
Sir Gerald Kaufman: I would say that a 72-year-old is gradually approaching the prime of her life.
Chris Bryant: And wisdom is slowly descending upon her.
The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who is not in his seat but who, I am sure, will be back in a moment, referred to the fact that a large part of the casework of many hon. Members relates to the UKBA, and we heard the voice of those Members in the Chamber this afternoon. It was noticeable that only one Back-Bench Conservative Member made a speech in the debate, which is different from previous occasions. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) spoke on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.
The role of the UKBA is to provide an immigration system that is efficient, effective, humane and as watertight as possible, and it must surely be an own goal if people can come in and out of our country or overstay, willy-nilly or, if the system is so complex that it is easy to circumvent or utterly impossible for an ordinary sane person to understand, or if the queues are so lengthy at our airports or ports that the UK’s reputation as a place to do business or as a place to come as a tourist is harmed, or if it costs too much money to run.
In the motion that we are discussing, we are spending £11,034,371,000. That is a significant amount of money and our constituents would want to make sure that it was being spent well.
As the various reports referred to in the debate—two of which are by the Home Affairs Committee—have made clear, the UKBA has not had an easy time. Last summer’s experiments by the Home Secretary meant that warnings index checks were suspended 354 times. They were suspended on European economic area school groups of under-16s travelling by coach at juxtaposed controls, originally with the permission of Ministers. The policy was then extended to sea ports and the Eurostar, which Ministers were notified of, but from February 2011 the age restriction was completely lifted without any degree of permission. The agency’s records on the suspension of warnings index checks were extremely poor, as Mr John Vine has testified. The secure ID was suspended 482 times between June 2010 and November 2011, 463 of which were at Heathrow, the country’s busiest airport.
We understand that this was all supposedly because the UKBA interpreted the Immigration Minister’s letter of 27 January 2011 as approval to lift the secure ID. He believes that that was not his intention whatsoever. The Home Secretary made clear her opposition to the moves being mooted on 13 April, yet it continued. This is obviously a sign of an organisation in chaos. Indeed, the independent chief inspector’s report states that ‘the language used in both the “Summer pressures” submission to Ministers and the response provided’— in other words, by Ministers— “was not clear and as a result was open to misinterpretation… there was confusion amongst staff” not least because the Home Secretary’s office note did not clearly define any of the terms being used.
I would like to refer to another report by the independent chief inspector, on border control operations at Heathrow terminal 3 from August to November 2011, the same period covered by the Home Affairs Committee’s report. The inspector identified even more worrying signs, first of an “inconsistent application of border security checks”, and secondly of “completely inadequate” record keeping in two thirds of the cases examined. That matters, because all the references we have heard in the debate to paperwork further down the system being inadequate, poorly looked after, incomplete or disappearing into the black hole, or the Tardis, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East referred to it, stem from inadequate record keeping at the beginning. However, the report found such inadequate record keeping not only at terminal 3, but at Gatwick’s north terminal.
In addition, the inspector found: “The introduction of team based working in July 2011, coupled with a new shift working system and the amalgamation of immigration and detection roles at Heathrow was far too much organisational change during the busiest time of the year at Heathrow.”
That goes to the heart of the point my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made on how staff morale can be kept up so that they do an effective and efficient job if they are trying to cope with so much change at the same time. Perhaps we are demanding too much of them. The inspector also found that all this was “complicated by staff reductions of 15% at Terminal 3”.
We want secure borders, but it is difficult to provide them if we do not provide enough resources to allow the job to be done properly. When I visited Stansted on Monday to see the operation there, staff working for the UKBA made it clear to me that all the new staff who have been drafted in to help in the run-up to the Olympics and through the games receive only three days of training. They are unable to do the full job that is necessary and, consequently, there is a real security problem. In addition, the fact that they are suddenly recruiting back from retirement people who were made redundant only last year makes it look as if they do not really know what they are doing.
The report also found that: “The Agency was failing proactively to deal with absconders,” and I really want to raise that issue with the Minister, because there is a serious problem with absconders, and it is not just at terminal 3—although the report found that it had increased there “by 62% between 2009 and 2011.”
Indeed, not only did the figure for those absconding go up, but the figure for people who were captured having absconded went down, falling from 40% to 16%, meaning that during that period alone some 150 people absconded—and have not been found.
I raise the matter because I worry that the general level of absconders is rising throughout the country, so, first, I should be grateful if the Minister said how many people who have been told that they are no longer able to stay in this country are still in this country. Can he pitch a figure? Is it 100,000, 150,000, 250,000? I suspect that it is about 150,000.
Secondly, the Government and the UKBA have absolutely no idea where many of those people may be, or whether they have left the country, and that must surely be a concern, so can the Minister confirm whether all absconders are added to the national police computer, either as wanted or with a local trace mark, so that when somebody pops up in another area it is possible to track them down? If they are not, the UKBA is failing in its task.
I raise one other problem in relation to the independent inspector’s report, namely that of measuring queues. I noticed at Stansted that the UKBA starts measuring the length of a queue only from the moment at which someone enters the terminal building, but the queues often start long before the terminal building, and the time from the moment someone enters the terminal to their passport being dealt with is normally only 20 minutes, because the vast majority of the queue is backed up way down a series of tunnels, on trains and, sometimes, on aeroplanes, so I am distrustful of the figures for queuing times at Stansted.
Keith Vaz: I, too, went to Stansted, albeit at a different time from my hon. Friend, and the problem is that, when British citizens return to their own country, they are held by airline officials just before they join the escalators, all the way back to the plane, and that, when they reach the immigration hall, half the kiosks are un-personned.
Chris Bryant: Yes, “un-personned”: very correct of my right hon. Friend.
In addition, one of the biggest problems, which applies not only to Stansted but elsewhere, is that many staff who have been brought in to help in the run-up to the Olympics, a known problem that is coming along the track, are not able to work with non-EU passengers, and consequently the moment any arrive there is an enormous back-up. Further, when I was there on Monday morning not a single e-gate was working, and I understand that they were not working at any point at all on Monday.
The fact that e-gates are not working effectively is a significant problem across the estate and at several different ports. When IRIS finally goes in September, the real problem will be whether we have any automated system on which we can rely, so I should be grateful if the Minister commented on the future of automation.
I have one final complaint in relation to the inspector’s report, because at Heathrow terminal 3 there was a 58% drop in the issuing of IS81 forms, on which a passenger is told that they will be subject to further interrogation. That is important, as all too often in a simple desire to cut queues, we are cutting back on security, because staff are not able to do their job properly.
There is a further problem in relation to foreign national prisoners. Of the 5,012 who completed their sentences in 2010-11, 3,248 were removed, 471 were allowed to remain but the cases of 1,300—a staggering figure—are still outstanding. Only 500 of those are detained. There are other unspecified issues with 20 of them and, as I said earlier, 27% of them—some 350—are just categorised as unknown issues. In other words, the UKBA has next to no idea about what is happening with those people or about the likelihood of moving forward in a way that makes their lives easier or our country more secure.
In addition, immigration tribunals overturn UKBA decisions a dramatic number of times—41% of appeals are lost by the UKBA. That is a significant problem. Obviously, it delays people’s ability to get on with their lives and it is a significant additional expense for the UKBA. How will the Minister tackle the problem of so many appeals being lost at tribunal?
I have a minor comment to make about the common travel area, also at Stansted. It was pretty clear that it would be easy for someone to negotiate their way around without going through proper border controls, having printed off a boarding pass pretending that they had flown in from Ireland when in fact they had flown in from somewhere else. I hope that the Minister will be able to close that loophole.
My final point is that the Government are planning to cut staff at the UKBA by 5,300. I believe that that will make it phenomenally difficult for the agency to do its job effectively. In particular, in the run-up to the Olympics, which everybody knew were coming along, we have already seen how difficult it has been to maintain strong security and a decently short length of queue.
Lots of people have been flown in from different parts of the country as emergency measures in the run-up to the Olympics, and the relevant people have been prevented from taking holidays during the Olympics and Paralympics. My concern is that the moment that is over, it will be phenomenally difficult for the UKBA, without those resources, to get anywhere near doing its job properly. We can complain about the UKBA, but if we do not give it the resources to do its job properly, our complaints are worth nothing.
The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): I start by thanking the Home Affairs Committee for its reports and its Chairman for his introduction, which set the tone of this debate. That tone has largely been thoughtful; oddly enough, there was more consensus that I might have expected when the debate started. Parliamentary scrutiny of Government Departments is crucial in ensuring that they are delivering Government policy properly and offering value for money.
A huge number of points have been made, and I will deal with them in a moment, but I would like to start with an overview of the UK Border Agency. The agency has changed radically in recent months. Much of the speech by the shadow Minister was devoted to the John Vine reports of last year, which were, of course, important. That is why, in February this year, the Home Secretary told the House that the UK Border Force would split from the UKBA to become a separate operational command with its own ethos of law enforcement, led by its own director general and directly accountable to Ministers.
Since then both the UK Border Force and the UKBA have done their different jobs in protecting the border and ensuring that Britain remains open for business, checking people travelling to the UK before they arrive—through visa checks, intelligence and the use of the e-borders system.
In this climate of change, we all rightly expect the agency to continue to deliver. The work of the agency is crucial in controlling migration and protecting national security. The Committee’s reports on the work of the agency have shown that, as with all organisations, there is certainly room for improvement. Of course I acknowledge that, and the Government have accepted most of the Committee’s recommendations.
I have said previously to the Committee that the agency is good in parts but needs to improve. That is why a transformation plan has been initiated by the chief executive, Rob Whiteman, to address precisely the weaknesses identified by many right hon. and hon. Members. Even if the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) does not necessarily agree with all the policies I implement, she would, as she said, like the system to work properly, and I can assure her that that is the purpose of many of the changes that Rob Whiteman is making. I am grateful for the remarks by my right hon. Friends the Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who said that at a constituency level their experience is of an organisation that is getting a bit better. That is clearly a step in the right direction.
The agency faces a serious challenge—to reduce net migration while ensuring that migrants who do come here are of the calibre we need to benefit the UK. As I have said from this Dispatch Box before, the immigration debate is partly about numbers, but it should not be wholly about numbers. We have always been clear that controlled, selective migration is good for the UK. Encouraging tourism is essential for the UK economy, and this will obviously be particularly true over the next few months as we welcome an unprecedented number of visitors from around the world.
Bringing down net migration and attracting the brightest and the best are not mutually exclusive objectives. We need to know that the right numbers of people are coming here and that the right people are coming here—people who will benefit Britain, not just those who will benefit from Britain. We want an immigration policy that reflects consensus about who should be able to come here and an immigration system that can actually deliver it, with a legal framework that reflects the will of Parliament while respecting our international legal obligations, and a system and a policy that make immigration work for Britain economically.
The Migration Advisory Committee recently published a study of how we calculate the costs and benefits of immigration. Its view is that the Government should focus on the impact of migration on the welfare of residents rather than on the old assumption that because immigration adds to GDP it strengthens the economy and therefore, logically, the more immigration the better. This key insight of the MAC’s work gives us the basis for a more intelligent debate and supports a more selective approach to migration. The comprehensive set of reforms that we have introduced on work, students, settlement and family have set the way forward for such a system.
At the heart of the organisation of that system—the subject of the Committee’s reports—lies our visa regime. The UKBA administers one of the most competitive and efficient visa services in the world, ensuring that tourists and other genuine visitors can travel to the UK, enjoy what our country has to offer, and then return home. I should like to put some figures on this, because it is often under-reported. In 2011, the agency processed over 2.5 million visa applications—a 3% increase on 2010 and a 7% increase on 2009. The most recent set of migration statistics—the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) should listen to this after his claim that it is impossible to bring immigration down—showed that numbers of visa grants in every category are falling, apart from those for visit visas. Student visas are down by 21%, family visas are down by 16%, work visas are down by 8%, and visit visas are up by 9%. Those are the key figures in the immigration debate. They demonstrate how the agency is delivering the reductions in long-term immigration that we expect while not preventing valuable and genuine visitors from coming to the UK. These include people from some of our key markets such as China and India, where we have twice, and in some cases three times, as many visa application centres as any of our competitors.
But of course the public have perfectly reasonable concerns about the number of migrants who continue to come here. The changes that we have already made are starting to have an impact, but we have always said that it would take the full term of this Parliament to achieve our objectives. As has been widely—I think universally—agreed in the debate, that is largely due to an ineffective system that goes back to a time way before this Government. It has taken a raft of tough new policy measures merely to stop the steady rise in net migration before we see it coming down.
The checks made by the UKBA represent the key tools in ensuring that our requirements are met and that our policies deliver what we expect. The agency now has a presence in 137 countries, and despite the considerable logistical challenges involved in running this global operation, it routinely exceeds its service standard of processing 90% of visa applications within three weeks. In 2011, it processed half the non-settlement visa applications and two thirds of the business visa applications within five days. It did so with a focus on quality decisions and excellent customer service. I say gently that the sustained good performance of the agency’s visa service has perhaps escaped the Select Committee’s otherwise all-seeing eye. However, no discussion of the work of the UKBA would be complete without acknowledging it. I hope that members of the Committee agree.
A number of issues have been raised, and I will start with students. We are dealing with migrant students who have been left without a college following the introduction of the tough new rules for institutions that wish to sponsor non-EU students. About 500 colleges have disappeared from the register and are no longer allowed to bring in foreign students. That is a distinct public policy success and, again, one that is not often acknowledged.
Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Although those colleges are now not functioning and have had their licences withdrawn, the British high commissions in places such as Delhi, Pakistan and Nepal have already issued the visas and received the fees, and the students have paid their college fees but are not allowed to study. Hundreds of students have lost their money because the colleges have closed, which is no fault of theirs. What are the Government doing about that?
Damian Green: I will say two things. First, there has been a huge amount of fraud in the past and the sweeping away of bogus colleges reduces the chances for such fraud. This point was also raised by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Individual students have 60 days to find a new college and their visa is still operational for that period. That is the sensible first step for them to take.
Stripping away the bogus colleges is only the first point. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made a perfectly reasonable point about those who overstay or abscond. The UKBA has been working through tens of thousands of leave curtailments. It is stripping students and others of their right to remain in the UK if they have no right to be here and providing them with written notification that they should return home. In recent months, it has dealt with almost 25,000 curtailments. To ensure that such people return home, the UKBA is undertaking a summer enforcement campaign to target those who have overstayed their visa. The aim of the campaign is to galvanise intelligence-led enforcement activity against such individuals, with the intention of removing them. So far this summer, we have removed almost 1,800 overstayers. As has been said, that is probably 1,800 more overstayers than have been removed in any previous year. That is not just students, but all overstayers.
Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister give way?
Damian Green: I apologise, but we are coming to the end of the debate and there are lots of points that I wish to respond to.
Foreign national offenders were mentioned by a number of Members. We now start deportation action 18 months before the end of the sentence to speed up the process. We are also chartering more flights to remove foreign offenders. Last year, we removed more than 4,500 foreign criminals—43% of them before the end of their prison sentence. Many Members raised the issue of those who are released from detention while awaiting deportation. In only 30% of those cases is the decision made by the UKBA. The courts make the other decisions.
The asylum legacy was perhaps the biggest bugbear of hon. Members from all parts of the House. I sympathise with them entirely. There are currently 80,000 cases in the asylum controlled archive. That is down 18,000 from last September. There is some confusion about this matter, but no new applications are being added to the archive. If we find cases while mopping up around the agency that belong in the archive, which is for very old cases, they are put there and processed. Nobody should be under the misapprehension—I think it was the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) who brought this up—that new applications are going into the archive; they are simply not.
As has been mentioned, we are now checking cases not just against public sector databases but against credit scoring databases and so on, to see whether people are leaving any footprint in this country. If they are not, there is clearly evidence that they have left, which allows us to concentrate on those who are here so that everyone gets a decision. As the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said, the target is finally to clear the backlog this year.
Another big issue that many right hon. and hon. Members brought up was the changes that we are making to family visit visa appeals, which we are restricting. I should point out that no other category of visit visa attracts a full right of appeal, and it is a disproportionate use of taxpayers’ money to fund a full right of appeal for a visitor, to be heard by a tribunal in the UK. No other country does that. From 9 July, the new regulations will restrict the full right of appeal to those applying to visit a close family member with settled refugee or humanitarian status.
I repeat that it is quicker for people to reapply than to appeal, and it is not the case that every decision is simply rubber-stamped. I believe it was the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) who brought that up. I assure him that each case is examined by a more senior member of staff, and that some decisions are changed by the entry clearance manager.
Mr Virendra Sharma: Will the Minister give way?
Damian Green: I apologise, but I do not have time to give way.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) mentioned a number of individual cases, and if he wishes to grab me after the debate I will of course take them away and look at them. I strongly recommend that his office use the Members’ hotline and the case owner system, as other Members do. As the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said, relationships can develop that may well deliver a faster service to constituents. I seek to reply to the many letters that I receive from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton as quickly and efficiently as possible, but he might find it easier and better for his constituents if he used the systems that have been set up precisely because of the various problems that have existed over the years.
I take the points that many Members made about the use of intelligence. We have set up a special directorate to use intelligence and information from the public much better, and we are developing a central database to enable allegations to be tracked on an end-to-end basis. I listened carefully to the point that, if possible, people who have given information should get some sort of response about what has happened, but I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that that cannot always happen.
The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association has brought to our attention a few points of detail in the new appeal regulations, but they do not require us not to introduce those regulations on 9 July.
I do not believe that everything in the UKBA is perfect. It has a number of difficult jobs to do, and mistakes will be made, but the agency is now working to a clear and comprehensive set of policies to reduce net migration and is transforming its operations to perform its day-to-day business more efficiently. That is the current reality of the UKBA, and I hope that the many Members who for obvious reasons take a personal interest in its activities recognise that it is changing for the better.
Keith Vaz: I will speak only very briefly because the Home Affairs Committee does not want to intrude on the time available for the Foreign Affairs Committee’s debate, which is about to begin.
I thank all Members who have taken part in the debate. They have all talked about their strong local relationships, and I want to pay tribute to my own caseworker, which I forgot to do earlier. Everyone else has paid tribute to theirs, so I should thank Diana Cank for her work.
The Home Affairs Committee will continue to scrutinise the UKBA in a robust way. We look forward to seeing the Minister before the Committee on Tuesday, and we will publish our next report in about three weeks.
Last Updated on Friday, 06 July 2012 14:46