Standing Committee E
Thursday 16 May 2002
[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 293, in page 50, line 12, leave out 'or 24A(1)' and insert
', 24A(1) or 26(1)(c) or (d)'.[Angela Eagle.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) asked for the full list of offences to which the clause will relate. The formal answer is those under section 24(1)(a), (b), (c), (e) or (f), section 24A(1) and section 26(1)(c) or (d) of the Immigration Act 1971. In plain English, that means that the clause covers those who overstay or breach conditions of entry, enter illegally, obtain leave to enter by deception, knowingly enter the UK in breach of a deportation order without leave, abscond, or try to evade enforcement action.
Those are all immigration offences, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that the idea of clause 100, which is the first of several clauses concerning information, is to keep the issue in proportion. Before lunch, we said clearly that no fishing expeditions are implied in clauses 100 to 106. They deal with information gateways, and to trigger the gateways, the Secretary of State must have a reasonable suspicion that an individual has committed a specified immigration offence. It is important that we can pursue information to catch up with such people.
The other side of the coin of having an immigration system that works well is the need to ensure that our system cracks down on those who have entered the UK illegally and on their opportunities to disappear into the system and evade the authorities. By definition, and speaking generally about the clause, that means that we want to share information without imposing burdens or starting fishing expeditions. We will deal with people's privacy in a way that allows us to put together information and then find and put pressure on those who harbour illegal workers or profit from them, whether from bonded labour or otherwise. If we do that, we will create a fair system for people entering the country and minimise the chances of those who have entered by deception continuing to profit by not bringing themselves to the attention of the authorities. I hope that, with those assurances, the hon. Gentleman will accept the amendment.
Amendment agreed to.
Column Number: 312
Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I beg to move amendment No. 304, in page 50, line 15, after 'section', insert 'through a named officer'.
Now that I am an old hand at this amendment-moving business, I want to speak to another probing amendment.
We need a prompt, efficient system that is far more effective than that which has operated in recent years at keeping track of and removing immigration offenders. The clause will allow the Secretary of State more easily to track down various applicants but it also constructs a system of surveillance and information exchange which would not look out of place in the old German Democratic Republic. We need to be mindful of three important factors so that the tracking system will not be open to abuse: it must be sensitive; it must be applied consistently and, perhaps most importantly, it must ensure absolute secrecy and confidentiality.
If the system is to encapsulate those three factors, it is vital that the information is provided to and through a named officer who is also suitably senior and qualified. Not only should the officer be specifically designated to reveal the information, but the method by which he or she gives out the information is extremely relevant and should be tightly controlled. Only last year, someone purporting to be the Leader of the Opposition managed, on the strength of a feeble impersonation, to get through the Downing street switchboard to the Prime Minister in his bedroom.
Angela Eagle: Only on the phone.
Mr. Barker: YesI did say through the switchboard.
If the information is to be transferred by telephone, there need to be strict procedures governing its release. Is it proposed that such communications will take place by telephone? Would it not be better for information to be passed by letter, fax or even e-mail? Such a system could easily be compromised by organised criminals or fraudsters tracking down the exact whereabouts of unwitting individuals. I hope that the Minister can assure us that that necessary information will be dealt with in a tight and well-ordered way, and that records will be kept so that if there is a miscarriage of justice or the system is abused, individuals are clearly accountable and the necessary safeguards to which I have alluded are in place.
Simon Hughes: The Minister will know that the issue concerns the official Opposition and my party.
First, what is the collective response of local authorities to the proposal? Have they responded to the consultation and, if so, can we see that response? Some authorities must have concerns and it would be helpful to know whether they have responded only collectivelythrough the Association of London Government, the Local Government Association or similar organisations in Scotland and Northern Irelandor whether there have there specific representations. Has there been any response from my local authority of Southwark, for example, or from the authorities of other members of the Committee?
Column Number: 313
Secondly, I agree that a named officer should deal with the information but I will be even more specific than the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker): it should be the chief executive's responsibility. This is a probing amendment, so it is proper to widen the debate. We are talking about people's liberties, their prospects of being arrested and taken away, and the exchange of information that might lead to that. Information should therefore be channelled through the chief executive.
One reason why that is an obvious suggestion is that it would be easier to determine accountability. Every local authority would have someone at the most senior level who knew the score and who could feed information to elected members of the local authority and to Members of Parliament. That individual would have the responsibility that would otherwise be given to an officer lodged in one department, when the issue was not one for a single department. It might be a housing issue, involving tenants. It might be an electoral registration issue, involving Commonwealth citizens who were here legally or illegally. If they were here legally, they might be entitled to go on the electoral register. It might be a social services issue. The chief executive, or someone holding an equivalent position, should therefore have that responsibility.
As I said, it would be helpful to know if an indicative or definitive list had been sent out which detailed the circumstances in which a local authority could request information. The Minister alluded to certain circumstances in the debate on the previous amendment.
Angela Eagle: On the point raised by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, the Data Protection Act 1998 already provides the necessary safeguard by ensuring that any such data must be processed securely. It cannot be sent around willy-nilly for anyone to look at. We believe that most local authority requests will be made in writing, and, presumably, they will be complied with thereafter in writing. Records of requests made by the immigration authorities will be carefully kept. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see that his worries are unfounded.
The Greater London Authority expressed concern about possible implications for social services and children, which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey echoed today. The power is limited to non-sensitive information, and would not be relevant for child protection or social services issues. It relates to the whereabouts of people about whom the Secretary of State has reasonable suspicion, and who fall into the categories of immigration offences which I mentioned during the debate on the Government amendment. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman. No other local authority associations have made comments to date, but I suspect that the Bill's timetable has prevented them from making much detailed scrutiny. We are open to any representations that local authorities need to make.
Column Number: 314
The powers are similar to those in the Social Security Fraud Act 2001. They have operated well, and no onerous burdens have resulted from them. The hon. Gentleman needs to remember that we must have reasonable suspicion about an individual. We then seek their whereabouts by using information such as council tax or housing benefit details, which may be available from a local authority and may help us to apprehend sooner rather than later those people who have broken immigration rules. In most organisations, the data is regularly processed in legitimate circumstances at whatever level the authority decides. To place a burden on the chief executive is organisationally impractical and will make the daily use of the powers more difficult.
I ask the hon. Gentleman at least to acknowledge that the apprehension and deportation of immigration offenders is in the public interest, and that proportionate, tightly drawn powers, which do not allow fishing trips and whose use will be recorded by the immigration authorities, are an entirely legitimate response to some of the difficulties that we face with those who dodge immigration rules. With that reassurance, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make it two in a row and withdraw his amendment.
Simon Hughes: This is a probing amendment, and I am reassured by some of the Minister's comments, but I still have a number of concerns. I am reassured that she reminded us of the test of reasonable suspicion and that the provision has only one purpose: to establish where a person is. I accept that both are perfectly valid limitations on the Secretary of State's power. It is also helpful to know that there has not yet been a response from local authorities. I hope that this debate will at least facilitate such a response, ideally through representative organisations, so that a view can be formed.