Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I suspect that it would be a mistake to single out bodies that should be consulted, as it may simply offend bodies that are not mentioned. The principle of wide consultation with interested groups is excellent and I am sure that the Minister will be able to support it in broad terms. It will be particularly important to ensure that there is consultation with organisations in Scotland about citizenship, because—regrettably—citizenship will not form part of the curriculum there as it will in England and Wales. Several hon. Members would be happy to make political capital of any exclusion to what they see as the Scottish interest. I hope that the Minister recognises that when we talk about citizenship we cannot make a generalisation and say that the citizenship classes in England and Wales will apply to Scotland and, no doubt, Northern Ireland. Will she tell us about her intention to consult widely on the provisions and, especially, how she intends to reflect Scottish interests on citizenship?

Angela Eagle: I agree with the thrust, although not the detail, of the amendment—that will not surprise the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. It suggests consultation with three particular bodies, and we have heard the row that that would cause among those that are not mentioned. He was honest enough to refer to that while speaking to the amendment.

The amendment contains the words ''and agreement from''. That implies that the bodies would have a veto on secondary legislation. We could never agree to that in those terms.

Simon Hughes: You could if you wanted to.

Angela Eagle: We could, but Parliament would be rather upset if we gave outside bodies a veto on statutory instruments, which it is the right and proper job of elected Members of Parliament to consider

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rather than that of the very interested and enthusiastic but unelected members of NGOs. They have great experience but they do not have the accountability of Members of Parliament.

Although I agree absolutely with the principle that we should try to get broad agreement on the detail of regulations, and that we should consult as much as possible while getting on with making decisions to introduce regulations that are as effective as possible, I do not want to accept the amendment. The list of NGOs that it mentions is too narrow—we have heard several bids to include others. Also, it implies that specific NGOs would have a veto on secondary legislation, which could not be right. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured by our view that, in principle, we should consult and listen to the best expert advice. We should also strengthen the debate in the country on citizenship, which we all want, because the more that happens the better. I agree with that, but I do not agree with the amendment, and I hope that he will not press it to a vote.

Simon Hughes: I was just testing the Government's collective partnership. We have crime and disorder partnerships and local strategic partnerships, and I was testing whether the Government are willing to share decision-making power, or whether a body could be a partner only if it does not have a final casting vote.

I was reminded of that by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North who was, like me, a long-serving member of the Committee that considered the Greater London Authority Bill. During that exercise, we tried to provide for real devolution of power, but we discovered that the Government held on to many reserved powers. The Bill often provided that the Mayor of London could be given a power provided that the Secretary of State agreed. Since then, the Secretary of State has often not agreed, as tube users have discovered.

The amendment was not intended to be mischievous but to make a point, which the Minister understands. Regulations should be agreed widely, and the amendment would have provided that others should agree to them, rather than the Government imposing regulations.

I understand the Government's first position. Although I have not yet been given red boxes, which carry a larger salary with them, I have been lucky enough to see notes from civil servants to Ministers that say, ''This is the first line of argument.'' When one turns over the page, it says, ''Resist this'' and then, ''If you really have to concede, concede this.'' I judge that we could have some movement on the issue, although conceding that other people should have the right to veto may be at the bottom of the list of concessions that the Minister is encouraged to accept.

I look forward to hearing more detail soon. The sooner we see drafts of regulations the better, and the sooner people are consulted the better. The reality is that we are buying a pig in a poke under clause 1 in the

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sense that we are buying a proposition without knowing what is behind the glass. The sooner we know what is going on, the better. In the interests of co-operation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Gerrard: I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 2, line 5, at end insert—

    '(ea) make provision for the Secretary of State to make payment to provide specified courses and to make payment for travel and childcare costs for those attending'.

The amendment deals with the provision of classes. The Minister has already referred to the Government's mapping exercise and their wanting to augment what already exists. The amendment would help such a process and ensure that sufficient provision is made to encourage and help people to attend classes. One general worry about the clause is that we should not create barriers to stop people becoming British citizens and naturalised. We should not be sending out messages that make people reluctant to enter into such a process, nor should we send out a message that people who want to acquire British citizenship are not interested in learning the language or knowing about living in the UK. We must create opportunities for people to be able to attend courses and classes when necessary to ensure—if there is to be a test—that they can pass it. I assume that there will be exemptions and that some people will not need to pass such a test.

Everyone agrees that knowledge of the language is important. Economic opportunities are denied to people if they do not have knowledge of English. We sometimes have to deal with complicated problems in our surgeries through a 10-year-old child, perhaps, whose knowledge of the language is greater than that of the parents. Those of us who have had such an experience realise how difficult it is for such people to deal with many organisations on a daily basis.

The White Paper was clear about wanting to encourage greater development of courses. It emphasised that many English courses for speakers of other languages are free of charge, and as the Minister said, we do not want to discourage people by charging for them. In some parts of the country, there are worries about the availability of courses. I do not think that there is great reluctance among refugee or ethnic minority communities to learn English. Sometimes, the complaint is the other way round. People want to learn English but find that there are not sufficient classes.

For several years, the adult education service, in particular, in parts of the UK has suffered many problems. It is not available on anything like the scale that it used to be. We should examine how we can ensure that courses are accessible and map what is available. Perhaps we should also consider how to reach people who may be difficult to reach. In some communities, for example, it may be difficult to persuade and help women who are reluctant to attend classes. Some schemes have been successful because outreach workers have taught people English within their homes. Once those people have passed through that initial barrier, they must be persuaded to

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develop their knowledge. We should also consider what techniques we can use, and how we can help people to get to places where courses and classes are available. The amendment suggests making

    ''payment for travel and childcare costs''.

Our approach must be positive.

Some debate on the subject has focused on citizenship to the exclusion of other issues. We should remember that people cannot apply for citizenship unless they have been in the country for a few years. The process should not get to a point where someone can make an application for citizenship before we start to encourage them to take some of the opportunities that I hope we will make available. Those opportunities should include the greater availability of English classes and courses on how our institutions and systems work in the UK, if that is appropriate as part of the tests proposed.

There has been a welcome White Paper, the first ever to talk about an integration strategy for refugees. The sooner we start that integration process the better. We should not start to think about that only when someone considers applying for citizenship after five—or perhaps many more—years in this country.

The amendment makes a simple point: if we want people to become British citizens, and to acquire language skills and knowledge about the UK as part of that process, it is up to us to make available the courses needed. Rather than putting up barriers, we should make it easier for people to get into those courses and encourage them to do that, so that the process is thought of as positive.

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Mr. Allan: I support this helpful and positive amendment. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, it is important to offer courses, and there are a several reasons why. It is important to make a statement not only about what acquiring nationality means in the context of the Bill, but what it means to be an immigrant into the UK. In the vast majority of cases, it means making a contribution to UK society.

We should offer a package of measures to assist people who, if they become citizens, will make a huge contribution economically when they become able to work and contribute through the taxation system. There is a perception that immigrants are taking things out of the system, but the reality is that they are contributing hugely. We need to tackle that, and we should be clear that the Government set nationality tests and put hurdles in front of people not to prevent a problem but to encourage something good—letting well-educated, contributing immigrants into the UK. That has been the case for many years. It is important that the Government accept their responsibility by paying for the package of education required, and by assisting with the associated costs.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow made an important point about geographical spread. There is plenty of evidence in reports by bodies such as the Commission for Racial Equality to suggest that there is nothing worse in this country than being an immigrant somewhere where there is no large

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immigrant population, and where one stands out. My former party leader, Paddy Ashdown, had a few experiences of that with people living in his constituency, which is out in Somerset, where life can be very tough for immigrants.

The last thing we want is to create an additional incentive for people to leave areas where there is a small minority population and head for centres of population with large immigrant communities. My fear is that if we do not provide appropriate coursework, someone who is trying to pass the nationality test may think that their only opportunity to gain access to the courses that they need is to move to—or go back to—a city. It would be a real shame for the country if, through the Bill, we created greater concentrations of immigrants. Instead, we should ensure that someone who comes to the country as an immigrant and wishes to apply for nationality feels confident that they can live in any part of the country and access the services that they need for their application.

I hope that the Minister will also consider the use of informal networks. In Sheffield, for example, we have some good teams of people whose job is specifically to support refugees but who have a wider input into the community and teach English as part of their voluntary support work. At times they feel frustrated that the Government do not support them sufficiently and that they are left to fill the gaps. I think that the amendment is designed to plug some of those gaps, but as well as obvious providers such as further education colleges, there is a pool of good will, and talented people out there may want to help. The Government might find a better network, in some rural areas, perhaps, where there is no suitable FE provider to provide English as a second language courses, in other solutions such as using schools and other trained people with teaching skills to provide courses.

The hon. Gentleman made another relevant point about timing. Much criticism in the popular press—which at times borders on the extremely offensive—of current circumstances relates to when there is an influx of asylum seekers into an area. The criticism is that the people cannot integrate and are not learning the language. However, under the legislation, they are barred from access to language classes because of their status. Frequently, in the early stage of immigration, whether as an asylum seeker—which I accept is in most cases different—or in other immigration routes, people are barred from any recourse to publicly funded services. That might be a mistake for someone who eventually applies for nationality if they cannot access services such as language learning until later. I hope that the Minister will consider the point about timing and language learning. It does not happen only further down the track.

 
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