Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)




  400. To IND?
  (Mr Boys Smith) To IND, on which we will, as appropriate, consult if need be with other Departments. In the context of people coming in to set up their own businesses, we are well used to looking at applications of that kind.

Mr Howarth

  401. I am sorry, I did not understand that this was a trawl for entrepreneurs, I thought this was to meet an alleged skill shortage.
  (Mr Boys Smith) One aspect of the changes already made is the Entrepreneurs Scheme to which the Home Secretary referred.
  (Mr Straw) There were changes made in the Work Permit Scheme. Do you want to explain those?
  (Mr Boys Smith) The work permit changes were to facilitate, for example, people who wanted to stay on after a period of study, to remain in the country, without having to leave the country and reapply. In a number of administrative ways to ease up the present work permit system. Again, all subject, therefore, to control and vetting.

  402. How long after their studying in the United Kingdom would it be anticipated they would stay? Is there a finite period or is it just indefinite?
  (Mr Boys Smith) If they establish themselves in employment and then are here for the requisite period, then they will be able to stay indefinitely as somebody already under the Work Permit Scheme will be able to do. In that sense, there is no fundamental change. It is to facilitate movement into the economy of those able to operate effectively.
  (Mr Straw) Under the Work Permit Scheme people are physically given a period which is time limited.

  403. It is a limited period?
  (Mr Straw) Yes.

  404. What is the average, any idea?
  (Mr Straw) I think it is up to five years but I would have to send you a letter about that.[1]

  405. Home Secretary, forgive me pressing you but I do think it is quite material we try and establish exactly what it is in a major area of Government policy that is being sought and what problem is being addressed. Personally I find it difficult to reconcile this apparent shortage of skills, particularly in the IT world, with the fact that something like 3,000 independent IT consultants have been driven out by the Chancellor's IR35 policy. Rather than having joined-up government, as the Chairman was inviting you to suggest there was, it does seem to some people that the Chancellor is driving people out and the Minister of State at the Home Office is inviting those same skills back in again but not from British nationals, from foreigners?
  (Mr Straw) I note what you say about IR35. I do not agree with what you say about it.

  406. Do you not agree people have been driven out by it?
  (Mr Straw) I have seen no evidence of that but that is not directly my area. What is unquestionably the case is that there is a very high demand for people with IT skills in this country and we are competing with other countries for these skills. When I was in India on an official trip with Mr Boys Smith in September I met a number of very substantial business people in Mumbai and they were talking about the way in which the skills of their employees were being sought after by firms in the United Kingdom, but also in Germany and the United States. I am pleased to say that one of these chaps volunteered to me that it was a lot easier and more straightforward to get work permits for people to the United Kingdom than it was for the USA or Germany. I said we hope to make it easier for those who are genuine and who have got the skills because this is, as it were, a mutual trade in skills which we wish to open up. Mr Howarth, you ask me what is it we are doing. Well, Mr Boys Smith has explained the change announced on 4 September which is to encourage entrepreneurs, which I hope Members of your party will agree with, and the other changes in the Work Permit Regulations. We cannot say for certain what the numbers will be but they will be fairly limited. To go back to the question the Chairman put to me about the next stage following Barbara's speech, I see this very much, as I say, as an iterative process where we get the debate going, we make changes which appear to carry wide support for which there is a good case. We then take stock and we make more changes if that is necessary. Of course at any one stage, because it is the immigration rules, if we find something is not working then we can withdraw that change.

  407. Quite clearly there are consequences which flow from a further wave of immigration in order to meet what we all perceive to be a skills shortage, but, as I say, not only are people concerned that one part of Government is making it difficult for those skills to remain in the United Kingdom, but also people would say we still have just under 1 million people unemployed, so should we not be doing something to encourage our own people to develop those skills so that we do not have need of this policy?
  (Mr Straw) First of all, I entirely refute your suggestion that the introduction of the IR35 has driven people out. That is simply not the case. If you want to swap statistics about the vibrancy of our economy compared with other EU countries, I am happy to do so.

  408. I do not think I am.
  (Mr Straw) We have got the best performing economy in Europe at the moment, and the fact that we have now overtaken Italy and France and become the world's fourth largest economy is proof of that. Nor is there a contradiction between getting people with IT skills into this country and providing more job opportunities for those 1 million people who are still on the unemployment register. By expanding businesses here we open job opportunities for other people, and almost by definition a significant proportion of the million or so who are left on the unemployment register are the people with lower skills rather than higher skills. There are still jobs with lower skills in any organisation, including high-tech IT organisations, and it needs entrepreneurs and software engineers to get that going.

Mr Linton

  409. You have talked a lot about the pull factors which attract potential immigrants to this country. I think it would be fair to say that there are some that one can do nothing about, such as language or family ties, and some that the Government can do something about, such as speed of decision making, cash benefits and access to public services. I think it would be very useful to the Committee as we get to the end of this inquiry to have your opinion on the extent to which you think the relative importance of these pull factors is, firstly on genuine refugees and, secondly, and maybe more importantly, on economic migrants.
  (Mr Straw) There are some that we can do nothing about, namely the fact that we speak English and that is now the lingua franca of the world, and I think one of the huge privileges of speaking English is that this language is shared by so many people in the rest of the world, but we cannot do anything about that. We should not do anything about the fact that we have had a record of very considerable tolerance of people coming into this country. It has not been good enough, but it has certainly been better than most European countries, and I am very proud of that and certainly do not want to do anything adverse about that record. There are other pull factors, as you suggest, which have played a part, not so much, I believe, in the decision of people who are well-founded applicants for asylum to settle here, but certainly played a part in the decisions on applications that are unfounded. Those factors have included availability of cash benefits, which the previous Government carried on for port applicants and would have carried on by their voting for the Bishop of Southwark's amendment in the Lords for port applicants for a considerable period in the future. That was one pull factor. A second has been the tardiness of decision making. It has taken about 20 months to make decisions. That has now speeded up considerably. We are already meeting the two plus four month time frame for most family cases, which is what I said we would do and have a track record for doing so before we brought the NASS scheme into effect for families and children, and make that available for that group for a year. So we are speeding up the process. The other pull factor has been the issue of removals, and a lot of effort and investment is now going into improving removals.
  (Mr Boys Smith) Just on the timing of two months. We are now on target to deliver the two months from the start of the next financial year for the majority, not just for the families, but for all cases.

  410. That is very encouraging. My colleagues had the opportunity of talking to some of the people in Sangatte who were hoping to come into this country and they obviously asked them what the main pull factor was for them given that they were already in a safe country, which was France. One answer that came up quite frequently was access to public services in this country. We are coming back to that later in the questions. Since the Immigration and Asylum Act has been in force have you had any reason to revise your assessment of the relative effect of the different pull factors and, specifically, do you think cash benefits was as big a pull factor as you feared it might be?
  (Mr Straw) When cash benefits were generally available there was always that 100 per cent take-up. Originally the brief by the previous Government was to end entitlement of in-country applicants to any kind of benefit from the state at all, and you will recall, Mr Linton, that it was pointed out by us when the 1996 Act was going through the House that this was (a) inhumane and (b) unsustainable, because you cannot have people starving. In the event the courts decided since ministers would now be willing, specifically, to exclude the operation of the National Assistance Act and Insurance Act from benefit to asylum seekers and their families, that obligation on the local authorities continued to apply. The effect of that was that they moved from cash benefit entitlement to entitlement in kind. The local authorities provided that and there was a very substantial reduction in the take-up of that benefit. That was very important evidence in my decision and was absolutely endorsed by the House to move away from cash benefits for port applicants to the National Asylum Support System where you can provide accommodation in kind and provide a mixture of vouchers and cash for day-to-day support. Of course these factors are difficult to pin down mathematically. What I can say is that since some, but not all, of these changes began to come into force, the level of applications has stabilised for asylum in this country, whilst in other European countries—and there are some key ones, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium—it appears to be rising. There is no doubt too that the introduction of the civil penalty has had a number of very important benefits in terms of improving control. One which I had not anticipated was that this, in turn, has led to very considerable pressure by French hauliers on the Chamber of Commerce in Calais, who run the port, to improve, quickly, security at Calais. The civil penalty has done more in a matter of months than conversations with the French Government have done in years.

  411. Would you say, from the experience so far, that the voucher scheme and the switch to largely non-cash benefits has had an effect on the relative number of asylum seekers?
  (Mr Straw) To quantify it is very difficult, but I am not in any doubt at all that had we not introduced the changes in the 1999 Act, which included the speeding up of decision making and the associated investment, the one stop shop for appeals which has only just come into force, civil penalty, NASS are now in time, a very important change which is yet properly to roll out which is the control of unscrupulous immigration advisers, if those changes had not come in then asylum applications would have continued to rise.

  412. Would you hazard any estimates of the trend, either in the number of asylum seekers or in the general level of people coming into this country?
  (Mr Straw) You will excuse me for passing this back, but if you can predict to me what is going to happen in terms of political stability or instability in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, I could then tell you whether I thought these pressures would continue. Those are the top six countries for asylum applicants. The principal driver of asylum applicants, unfounded as well as well-founded applicants, is political instability elsewhere, as well as rising poverty. You then come to countries like China where there is a specific problem; Turkey where there is the issue of Kurdistan and the border they share with Iraq; Sierra Leone, whose instability is well known; Albania, where there are some consequences which flow from the Kosovan war; Algeria and then countries like India where remarkably few asylum applicants have any justification whatever, but given the fact that there are situations of abuse of human rights in India, those applications, like any other, have to be examined.

  413. When we come on to countries that you, I think, term as reasonably safe, countries like Eastern Europe and North Africa, where a lot of the asylum seekers do actually come from, would you expect to see a flattening out or reduction in the numbers?
  (Mr Straw) We would hope to see, is the answer, and I think there has been some—
  (Mr Boys Smith) On Eastern Europe there has been a considerable reduction.
  (Mr Straw) I think that is as a result of greatly improved enforcement and it is more straightforward to return those people. You may like to know—and it was agreed that I could make this public—that when I met the German Minister of the Interior last week he was explaining about their policy in Germany and he told me that they have 500,000 people in Germany who have exhausted all rights of appeal and yet cannot be removed, and for whom they continue to pay welfare payments. Half a million. Their initial backlog is relatively small, 35,000, but that is only up to the point of initial decision. They then have a four stage appeal process. They could not give me the figures for the total backlog in that, but I think it is well over 100,000. Then, once those have been exhausted they have this very large number.

  414. Do you have equivalent figures for the number of unreturned?
  (Mr Straw) No, we do not, but I think it is going to be many fewer than that. In terms of where we stand in terms of asylum applicants—this is up to the first half of the year, June 2000—we are seventh by head of population within Europe.


  415. Seventh lowest or seventh highest?
  (Mr Straw) Seventh highest, with Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria. I think we are falling so far as the United Kingdom is concerned. Belgium is the highest, 1.8, and then Ireland, 1.4, and United Kingdom is at 0.8.

  Mr Linton: As a Fulham supporter I have to be sceptical about the latter assertion.

Mr Malins

  416. Home Secretary, can I ask you a question or two about organised crime, which we all know is a major issue. I have just come back from a conference in Rome attended by Parliamentarians from all over Europe and the Anti-Mafia Commission. Would it surprise you to hear that there was universal approval from all the European politicians and civil servants, except me, for the proposition that we should have a common legal area throughout Europe in relation to organised crime, a European prosecutor and new European legal code to cover the whole situation, and a common police force leading to a single police force. How angry would you have been to hear that?
  (Mr Straw) I would not have been angry but I would have disagreed with those propositions. I am quite surprised that you were alone, I think you must be keeping bad company.

  417. Not even Mr Howarth was with me.
  (Mr Straw) Of course these propositions have been around in Europe but they are not widely endorsed, even by continental members of the Justice & Home Affairs Council. For example, on corpus juris, everybody accepts that the idea of having a single so-called legal space in Europe is an impossibility, I happen to think it is undesirable too. I thought about this a good deal. To have a single jurisdiction would be to have a single jurisprudence which also, since the law is deeply embodied in the culture of each country, would be to have a single history, you cannot do that. A great deal of the law of any country derives initially from the law of property, that is on ownership of land. The ownership of land has developed in different ways in different countries and until you establish who owns what you cannot really establish, for example, who can thieve from whom and trespass on what. To try and overturn centuries of history in each of these countries is a near impossibility and it is scarcely worth trying. If you look at a country like France, which had a very violent revolution in the 18th century, you see that even despite this very violent revolution, which was not least to overturn the power of the aristocracy, they have carried on with most of their traditions of land holding, so it is actually not a possibility.

  418. I am very glad.
  (Mr Straw) Can I say, in a speech in Avignon, which I made in October 1998, I set out the British Government's approach to this issue of how you had better secure co-operation between Member States of Europe in order that we can more effectively fight organised crime which has no respect of borders and never has had. What I proposed was that in place of chasing this kite of a single European legal space, which was neither possible nor desirable, so I suggest you might as well forget it, what we should seek to an extent is mutual recognition of our legal systems. That was widely welcomed at that conference. A huge amount of work has been going on on this ever since. That is the practical agenda for action. On the European prosecutor, again we are not going to see a European prosecutor and it is accepted that is not on the agenda. What is needed instead is much better co-operation between European Member States, and this is the practical agenda we are following.

  419. These views are very welcome in the Conservative Party.
  (Mr Straw) I am glad to know you are now adopting the New Labour approach to Europe.

1   See Appendix 27. Back

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