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2 Nov 2006 : Column 155WH—continued

There seems to be little flexibility in the way in which some cases are considered when decisions could be made outside the rules. Someone may have lived in this country for 10 or 12 years and then be told to go back to their country of origin to make a valid application when it is pretty obvious from the facts of the case that it is almost a foregone conclusion that the application
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will succeed. Not only does that create problems for the applicant, it creates more work for entry clearance and visa officers, and I suspect that they could well do without that.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): We all have such cases in our constituencies. I want to link the problem to the role of MPs. One of our key roles is to act as advocates and to try to provide information that may not have been in the system. We do that genuinely and as honestly as we can. In a recent case, the high commission in Jamaica accused me of telling deliberate untruths and contriving in a sham marriage. That was utterly reprehensible. I could only provide information that I had and, having met the constituent, I did so in good faith. That cannot be acceptable and theremust be better ways in which the system could be progressed.

Mr. Gerrard: I absolutely agree and if I had received such a response I would have reacted in exactly the same way as my hon. Friend. The section of the report that discusses the role of MPs rightly says that we should not have been drawn into the process as we have. We are now seen as a conduit for immigration and asylum applications and decisions, and I am sure that other hon. Members are finding their immigration and asylum caseload overwhelming.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend’s experience as a London MP is not dissimilar to mine. Half my new casework is about immigration. The House does not provide resources for us to deal with those people’s cases, because by definition, most are not on the electoral register. The net result is that we must provide additional services from the money made available to us to deal with our constituents, and that takes up the time and effort of our offices. I find it particularly annoying that frequently, immigration advisers charge the customers —our constituents—for the privilege of writing to us to undertake work for them.

Mr. Gerrard: Absolutely right. I am in roughly the same position: I guess that half—it might even be more—of the casework coming to my office is about immigration and asylum. Frequently, it is solicitors and advisers who have told people to come to us. They also tell people, and people get the idea, that we can short-cut the processes and jump people up the queue. We cannot, and it would be wrong if we could. The fact that somebody has come to us should not be a reason for pulling them out of the queue. We ought to deal with cases that are going fundamentally wrong, rather than with cases that sit at the end of a queue, taking months to receive any answers, as we so often do.

The Government’s response to the report suggests better systems for dealing with correspondence and for replying to letters from Members. That is fine, but we need much more than better correspondence systems. We need better and faster decision making. That is the root of the problem. It is not that I do not receive a letter for a few weeks, but that a case has been sitting around for six months and nothing has been done about it. I agree with the report’s point that one effect of IND targets is that the easy cases are dealt with and
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the more complicated cases—exactly the sort that people are likely to come to us about—end up sitting at the bottom of the pile. People seem almost frightened to take a decision about a complicated case, and all that does is generate more work for us, because claimants and their representatives keep coming to us again and again. The problem must be dealt with.

I suspect that I am in a minority on the subject of illegal working and over-stayers. If we go for a points scheme and do nothing about illegal working, we are heading for trouble. I have no problem whatever with taking action against employers who knowingly and deliberately employ people who are in this country illegally. I remember saying in Committee on an asylum and immigration Bill several years ago that we ought to consider those employers’ payment of tax and VAT, because I bet my life that some do not file proper VAT returns, or pay national insurance or tax as they should. I recall reminding one of the Minister’s predecessors that Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion. There are always different ways of getting people who play the system.

I am concerned about what happens to the individuals who work in this country illegally. The point has been made that many entered this country legally through various routes, and that their numbers are large. Obviously, we do not know exactly how many people are here, but the estimates go up to 500,000. Many have effectively settled here, they have families and they engage in family and community life, and some sections of the economy, particularly London, would be in serious trouble if they were to disappear overnight. However, their working here illegally leaves them wide open to exploitation, and it is impossible for them to enforce the normal rights of anybody at work. They dare not do so, because they would make themselves an easy target and lose their job. Further, if working conditions can be depressed, it has an effect on other people working in the same area, sector or company.

The question is what do we do about the situation? If we are honest about the situation and about the number of people involved, we are not going to remove up to 500,000 people. But if that is not going to happen, what are we going to do? Are we going to address individual cases in a piecemeal fashion, or are we going to develop a systematic means of dealing with the situation? We ought to have the latter. We are heading for trouble if we introduce a points scheme that leaves an unskilled person who comes to this country with no route to stay here permanently, but do not deal with the people who are already here and working illegally.

We must seriously consider a regularisation scheme. I do not suggest a blanket amnesty for everybody working here, because I am conscious of the argument that we do not want to create a pull factor.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend, who has studied those matters very well, will have seen paragraph 479 of our report, in which we discuss the pros and cons of an amnesty. I think we unanimously agreed to the paragraph. As expected, my hon. Friend has put forward powerful arguments, but is there not the danger that an amnesty would encourage illegal immigration and, despite the
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advantages, reward people who have broken our laws? In many instances, they have come to this country not because they are fleeing persecution—long may our country retain its reputation for providing asylum—they have come deliberately to break the law. In order to gain work, their actions are understandable, but they have still broken the law. Should they be rewarded?

Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): Order. I hope that further interventions will be shorter than that.

Mr. Gerrard: I understand the argument, but a balance must be struck. If we were to have a regularisation scheme, the question is, what would it look like? A blanket amnesty, which says, “If you are here working illegally, come forward and we will give you indefinite leave to remain,” could become a magnet. I am sure that the Minister has seen the report on the subject by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and the suggestions from unions such as the Transport and General Workers Union. They discuss a scheme that would consider the length of time that somebody had been in the country. In the first instance, the scheme would not provide indefinite leave to remain, but regularise their position and provide them with temporary legality, thus allowing them to earn indefinite leave to remain.

A scheme along those lines has real merit and is worth serious consideration. There will be a real problem if we introduce a points scheme that allows no route for an unskilled person who comes to this country to obtain indefinite leave to remain. There are large numbers of people here illegally, often in low- skilled jobs—that is certainly true of London’s economy—whom we know we will never remove, because their numbers have built up over the years.

Other countries have had regularisation schemes. Indeed, this country has had a whole series—we call them concessions. We have had a concession for people with children who have been in the country for seven years and a family concession for failed asylum seekers, so there is nothing new about us having concessions to deal with big backlogs. However, we have never had concessions around work, and that is something that we should be seriously considering. If we do not, I suspect that the problem will fester, which will make it much more difficult to introduce a proper managed migration scheme. In introducing and talking about managed migration, the Government have started a debate and started to move towards a policy that is long overdue. I very much welcome that change in policy, but the problem that I have described is one of the big holes in it.

3.10 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) for helping, guiding and leading us throughout the inquiry. He certainly tried to keep us timely and in order when we were having our meetings in Pakistan. I also thank the Committee’s officers, who are very good at keeping us in line. In particular, I thank them for all their effort in organising our work throughout the inquiry. Finally, I
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thank those whom we met in this country and abroad for their help, support and advice.

Our inquiry emphasised how important and necessary it was to go abroad and visit the visa posts. If we had not, we would have had a distorted view of our immigration service. I have a large community from Pakistan in my constituency, and some of my constituents are from India, so the visit to Pakistan and India was informative. It was certainly good to see Gerry’s I FedEx, for instance, because I had only heard about it, and it was great to visit it.

I endorse what the Chairman of the Committee said about the people we met. Wherever we went, we saw people who were dedicated not only to providing individuals with a good service, but to protecting our borders from those who have no right to enter the UK.

It is important that we look at the immigration service in the context of the numbers who are entering and leaving the UK. It is also important, as the Chairman of the Committee said, that we bear in mind the need to ensure that people can travel freely, while those who are not entitled to be here or to stay here are dealt with accordingly. Some 97.2 million passengers arrived in the UK in 2004. Of them, 68.2 million were British citizens, 17 million were from the European economic area and nearly six million were from the US, Australia and Canada. All those people want to come here when they like, just as we want to return from abroad without too many problems crossing the border. In that respect, it was interesting to hear on the news today that more than 1,000 people a day are leaving the UK—half of them are UK citizens going abroad for more than a year—and that 1,500 people are estimated to be entering. The programme also said that we have the lowest number of asylum seekers for 15 years.

Getting decisions right at the initial stage is key to making sure that the system works well, and one of the main issues is ensuring that applicants know what is required. We must ensure that they know which forms they need to bring with them and what evidence they need to provide. One issue that was raised with us in Pakistan was the need for entry clearance officers at our visa posts to be given feedback on cases that they have dealt with so that they can learn from their decisions when handling future cases. We also need to ensure that those working in the appeals system gain experience of initial decision makers’ work and that initial decision makers are more aware of those working in the appeals system.

Another key issue in the report is the need to enhance training for everyone working in the service, whether abroad or in the UK. As my right hon. Friend said, it is vital to give decision makers sufficient time to make the necessary inquiries. The UK has tighter targets than most other countries, and we need to balance that with the need to get the decision right in the first place. As we said in the report, seven minutes is not long enough to decide a case, even for straightforward applications. It is important that there is sufficient time for decisions to be made to ensure not only that inquiries can be made into whether the case is genuine, but that the decision is accurate. By allowing enough time and making inquiries, we might prevent
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refusals from being made mistakenly. Getting the information right can therefore work both ways.

The report also focuses on the quality of immigration decisions taken in the UK. We suggest that it would be helpful to introduce a network of immigration application centres, perhaps in post offices, which we already use for checking passports. It would certainly help my constituents if they could go to the post office to have their documents checked. That would help to prevent failures in the system and relieve the burden of financial administration on the IND. That would be similar to the situation with Gerry’s FedEx and other agents overseas, which help to relieve the administrative burdens involved in supplying UK visas. Indeed, using such agents prevents the backlogs that would otherwise occur when security problems prevent people from going to the visa post. Work can carry on because it is transferred from a safe place—the agents—to those dealing with UK visas.

The vast majority of students who come to this country bring income to our colleges and universities. They come here because we have a good education system. They complete their course, abide by the conditions and return home. However, there is a problem with students coming to universities or colleges that do not really exist or which are in the upper room of a shop. Such places cannot offer students anything and students who really believed that they were genuine are disappointed.

I therefore welcome the Government response to our recommendation and the fact that the managed migration intelligence unit will have increased resources and staff. When we went to Croydon, we saw that the unit could manage only a tiny proportion of the inquiries that it needed to make. As my right hon. Friend said, the Department for Education and Skills has a great responsibility to ensure that there is no fraud, that institutions are genuine and that the register of genuine institutions is corrected to ensure that the institutions on it are genuine. That is important now, but will be vital when the points-based system is introduced, because we will be relying on colleges to ensure that students attend and that the education on offer is genuine. If we do not ensure that those institutions are genuine, we will not be able to rely on the information that they provide.

To pick up one or two key issues about spouses, I commend the work that is being done here and overseas to protect those who are, or are likely to become, victims of forced marriages. When we were in Pakistan and India we heard of work that is being done there, on occasion, to rescue people who are likely to be forced into marriage. We recommend, at paragraph 311, further steps that the Government could take to protect young British people. The report states:

I hope that the Government will consider that.

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Other Members have touched on the question of people having to go abroad. Paragraph 300 of the report states:

We have all come across cases of people being advised that they must go home to apply to marry or to stay here, if they are married. We heard evidence about that matter in the inquiry. We also came across people with health problems. It is not always a matter of people having difficulty going back to a country because it is not a place that one would want to send people back to. Some people have health problems. Sometimes a couple with children is being asked to go back to a country that none of us would want to go to, and to which they certainly do not want to return. I hope that the Government will look again at the help that might be given in such instances.

The Chairman of the Select Committee has referred to the “minded to refuse” issue. That is another key issue, and many appeals could be saved if people were warned that they had not provided sufficient information and that without it the case might be turned down. Again, in our constituency work we have all come across such cases. Ideally, people should provide everything necessary in the first place. however, for those who do not, appeals could be avoided if there was the option to provide the material before that stage was reached.

I have picked up on only a few issues in the report, but I hope that the report will go some way to helping the Government to continue to improve the system.

3.23 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I am not a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, so I am a bit of an interloper in the debate, but I have read the report with interest. I come at the issues that it raises from a slightly different and quite particular angle. I am chairman of the all-party Chinese in Britain group, members of which have raised concerns with me about the highly skilled migrant programme and work permits for skilled migrants. The issue is one that, I have rapidly found, has an effect way beyond the Chinese community in the UK. It affects many people.

The problem that has been raised with me is the change to the qualifying period for settlement in the UK from four to five years. That change was announced in February 2005, but it took effect in April 2006. I have no objection in principle—nor have the people on the highly skilled migrant programme—to the change in the rules, which is supposed to align the UK rules with those in the rest of Europe. However, there is a strong objection to retrospective application of the rules—the decision that the new rules will apply to people who have already come to the UK expecting to be able to settle here permanently after four years. That is utterly unfair.

In the summer my hon. Friend the Minister met a delegation of people affected by the change, whom I brought to meet him. He gave them a sympathetic
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hearing and I thought that I should make progress in convincing him of the utter injustice of what had happened. I also presented him with a large petition, which stood about 3 ft high, from people throughout the UK who were concerned about the matter. I was told in a letter that I received a few days ago that the rules were not going to be changed back and that there would be no transitional arrangement. The Minister thought that the people concerned would now need to be in employment for five years rather than four, and added:

I think that he must have been at a different meeting from the one that we attended, because we gave many examples of real people with problems caused by the change.

One of the people who went to see the Minister was Mr. Mikhail Spivakov, who is a molecular biologist, originally from Moscow. He is working on a four-year fellowship at Imperial college, having previously turned down offers at some of the world’s leading universities, such as Harvard. He was promised that he could get settlement after his current four-year contract expired. A permanent visa was important to him because research scientists freely change employment to get experience in different laboratories. It would have meant that he could get a mortgage. More importantly, from his professional point of view, he would be able to travel far more easily to overseas conferences, which he has to do about once a month. Now he has found that he is no longer eligible when his current contract and visa expire.

Mr. Spivakov says that it is no longer in his interest to stay in the UK and that he wants to move on. He would have to get any new employer to apply for a work permit for him and renew his visa and, even more importantly, it would be necessary to seek a restricted range of grants to fund his research compared with what would be available to him if he were here permanently. All that would take time. There would be a gap in his employment history and because of that he would be back to square one, having to start all over again with a five-year period. He says:

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