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20 Apr 2009 : Column 21

Operation Pathway

3.34 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the 12 arrests which took place in the north-west of England on 8 April under the Terrorism Act 2000.

Those arrests are part of an ongoing and fast-moving police investigation. I am sure that hon. Members will understand, therefore, why I cannot go into detail on the investigation or the individuals involved.

On Wednesday 8 April, the north-west counter-terrorism unit, working with Merseyside police, Greater Manchester police and Lancashire constabulary, arrested 12 men under the Terrorism Act. Of those 12 individuals, 11 remain in custody and have had their detention extended to 22 April. Ten of the individuals are Pakistani nationals and one is a British citizen. The 12th individual, who is believed to be an Afghan, has been transferred to immigration detention. In addition to the arrests, a number of premises have been searched.

The arrests were pre-planned as the result of an ongoing joint police and Security Service investigation. The decision to take action was an operational matter for the police and the Security Service, but the Prime Minister and I were kept fully informed of developments. The priority at all times has been to act to maintain public safety.

The House will also be aware that during the course of Wednesday 8 April, photographs were taken of Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick as he was going to a meeting in Downing street. Mr. Quick was carrying papers that contained sensitive operational detail about the investigation and some of that detail was visible in the photographs. As a result, a decision was made by the police to bring forward the arrests to a few hours earlier than had been originally planned. The fact that these papers were inadvertently made public did not make any difference to the decision to carry out arrests—it simply changed the timing by a matter of hours. Assistant Commissioner Quick offered his resignation to the Metropolitan Police Authority on the following day and it was accepted. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his work on counter-terrorism and for his many years of service. He has made an enormous personal contribution to making our country a safer place.

I am sure the House will want to join me in thanking all the police forces involved in this operation. They are to be commended for the professional manner in which they carried out the arrests. I would also like to express my thanks to members of the public in the communities most immediately affected by these arrests, including those at educational institutions, for their patience and measured response to events. The police, with support from local authorities and elected representatives, are working closely with local communities to discuss issues or concerns linked to the operation.

Last month, the Government published our revised strategy to counter the threat to this country and to our interests overseas from international terrorism. A key theme in that strategy, Contest, is the need to co-ordinate our work with our international partners. The Prime Minister has already made it very clear that we need to continue to enhance co-operation on counter-terrorism
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with Pakistan. He has spoken to President Zardari and they have agreed that our two countries must continue to work together as closely as possible to counter this threat.

We are working with the Government of Pakistan to bolster their efforts to build civic society, tackle violent extremism and help build resilience in Pakistani society against radicalisation—just as we seek to do here in the UK. That work includes support for the modernisation of Pakistan’s security apparatus, support for governance and the rule of law, and work to undermine extremist ideology. Our counter-terrorism programme with Pakistan is worth approximately £10 million a year and is our largest such programme. In addition, to help the Government of Pakistan reduce poverty, the UK has doubled its aid programme to £480 million during 2008-11.

The House will understand that I do not wish to compromise an ongoing investigation by discussing the specifics of the case. However, there has been some speculation that the investigation raises wider questions about the criteria for obtaining student visas and about the issuing of licences by the Security Industry Authority. I would like to clarify the position on both those points.

We are currently delivering the biggest reform of border security and the immigration system for a generation. Last year, we completed the roll-out of biometric visas across the world. Fingerprints are checked against counter-terrorism and crime databases, as well as UK Border Agency records. In posts that we have classified as high risk, such as Pakistan, we have a risk-management network that helps to ensure that the right visa decisions are made, for example by working with local authorities to ensure that the qualifications of prospective students are independently verified.

The impact of those changes is demonstrated in the increased refusal rate for visa applications from Pakistan nationals. Under tier 4 of the points-based system, educational institutions that wish to bring in international students for more than six months must now be accredited by an independent body and licensed by the UK Border Agency. There will for some time be a number of students who have continuing leave under the old system. Many of them will be studying at colleges now on the PBS register, but some will not. Over half these students with existing leave will see their leave expire within 12 months; the vast majority within two years; and almost all within three years. Any student who does not bring themselves within the new PBS regime or leave the country when their leave expires will be subject to appropriate enforcement action.

Before the PBS was in place, about 4,000 institutions brought in international students. Now, under the PBS, there are about 1,500 institutions registered to do so. I have asked UKBA to prioritise enforcement activity on institutions: first, on those which applied but have not made it on to the PBS register; and subsequently on the remaining colleges that have brought in international students in the past, but have not applied for a PBS licence. Where there is evidence of criminal activity, we will prosecute. Where colleges have decided that the requirements of our new, tougher regime are too onerous, we will not allow them to bring in international students.

On the issue of Security Industry Authority licences, applicants have to satisfy a number of criteria before a licence can be issued. In particular, nobody is awarded a
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licence without a criminal record check and without having their right to work in the UK confirmed. I have asked the SIA to conduct an urgent review to look at whether the existing processes need to be strengthened, at the extent to which students, particularly foreign students, apply for SIA licences and, importantly, at whether that has implications for the security checks conducted by the SIA and the advice provided to employers.

The threat level to the United Kingdom from international terrorism is still assessed as “severe”. A terrorist attack is considered highly likely, so I would like to repeat my thanks to the police and the security agencies for their work in relation to this investigation, and for everything that they do to protect this country and the people who live in it from the threat of terrorist attacks. I commend this statement to the House.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I start by thanking the Home Secretary for giving me an advance copy of her statement. May I join her in congratulating the police on the work that they did, both in the investigation and in making the arrests promptly and without incident following the extremely unfortunate leak in Downing street?

I was asked after the event in an interview whether I blamed the Home Secretary for the fiasco. I said no—for once she was blameless, and I am glad that she recognised immediately that Bob Quick had to go. Such a blatant breach of the relevant protocols meant that his position was completely untenable. That is as far as I am going to go in praising the Home Secretary. The past few weeks have been another chapter of chaos in the Home Office. We have warned for years about abuses of the student visa system for immigration purposes, but the emergence of a terror threat within the UK from this system is a worrying but perhaps unsurprising new development.

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the security services have in the past year issued a number of warnings about flaws in the student visa system? Can she explain why the Home Office’s response to these warnings has been to cut back the visa operation in Pakistan? The UK Border Agency’s monthly report for February says:

Before she picks up the phone to Scotland Yard again, I reassure her that the document I am quoting from was not leaked to me—it was published on the internet.

So why are student visa applications from Pakistan being handled not from Pakistan but from Abu Dhabi; and why is Pakistan, of all countries, being used to “test a concept”? Is the Home Secretary not aware that high-quality fake documents that will help applicants get visas are on sale for £100 in Pakistan? Is she aware that there are companies doing what one described to a national newspaper as a “roaring business” in helping student visa applicants? Will she confirm the extraordinary fact that under this Government, the British high commission in Pakistan previously estimated that half of all students to whom it grants visas disappear after reaching the UK?

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If the security services say there is a big problem, why is the right hon. Lady cutting front-line staff in Pakistan, so that we cannot do adequate local verification? Why does she think that people in Abu Dhabi are better placed to judge an application? Will she confirm that one of the suspects in the case was allowed into Britain even though he had suspect papers? If that is the case, does it not blow apart the absurd claims made by the Immigration Minister that all this will be solved by the e-Borders database? And is it not true that even biometric data will not help us catch previously unknown terror suspects?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) knows, this Home Office is paranoid about bad news. Is it true that three years ago, a chief immigration officer who wrote an internal report criticising the way in which student visa applications in Pakistan are handled was disciplined and the report suppressed?

These are key issues that the Home Secretary has to address in relation to national security, but it is to her discredit that her statement today fails to address many of the problems that her Department faces. This should have been a statement that allowed the House to ask her why her Department made wildly exaggerated claims about leaks and national security, which led to the utterly unjustified arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford—the stuff of police states, not democracy. It should also have been an opportunity for the House to question her about the worrying issues that have arisen as a result of the policing of the G20 protests. However, this is hardly surprising. The right hon. Lady is the latest in a series of beleaguered Home Secretaries—three already in this Parliament. If we believe the Downing street rumour mill—despite everything, it still appears to be operating—she will be on her way before long, as well. Of course, the truth is that we do not need just a new Home Secretary. What we need is a new Government, if we are to sort out all this mess.

Jacqui Smith: The fact that the hon. Gentleman chose to spend a significant proportion of his response to my statement talking about me rather than about the issue says rather more about him than it does about me.

To return to the issue, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman, as I spelled out in my statement, that we have considerably tightened the process for issuing student visas, not just from Pakistan, but more widely. I have seen the visa operation myself at the high commission in Islamabad. I believe that there are committed people working hard, as there are throughout our visa operation across the world, supported by the introduction of biometrics, before time and on budget, which enable us now to check every applicant for a visa—student and otherwise—against watch lists and to weed out those who should not come to this country.

That is supported by the risk assessment that we introduced in Pakistan from 2005, which enables us to do additional checks on student visa applications made there, including on the nature of the qualifications that applicants have. The process is further supported by the tightening of the points-based system, which now means that any institution that wants to bring in international students has to be both accredited by a professional academic body and licensed by the UK Border Agency. The impact of all these measures has been an increase in the refusal rate for student visas from Pakistan from
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just over 50 per cent. in 2006 to nearly 70 per cent. in 2008—proof of the tightening of the regime over recent years.

I reiterate, however, that the vast majority of students who apply to come to this country are coming here because of the high quality of our higher education and international recognition of it throughout the world, and because they want to benefit from that and bring their talents to the UK. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to suggest that we should make it more difficult than it needs to be for legitimate students to come here—while recognising, as we have done, the need to ensure that a tough and rigorous regime is in place.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on individuals in those investigations, but as I said at the beginning, the priority is the successful investigation and either release or charge of the individuals who have been arrested. I shall not say or do anything to put that in jeopardy.

Finally, I would find the hon. Gentleman’s protestations about the strictures and robustness of our immigration system and, in particular, our approach to student visas more credible if he had not opposed us on the issue of foreign national ID cards, which help to tie foreign students to their identity, and on the e-Borders system, which helps us to count people in and out of this country and track those who should not be here. Standing at the Dispatch Box and pontificating is no alternative to practical action, and that is what I am engaged in.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and the steps that she has taken? I remind her that the Select Committee on Home Affairs has, on a number of occasions in recent reports, pointed out its concerns about the entry clearance operation in Islamabad and, especially, that people are not routinely interviewed there. Will she confirm that part of the operation actually takes place across the road from here, in King Charles street, where some visas are granted?

The Home Secretary will know that I wrote to her recently to express concern not about the leave of absence for the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), the entry clearance Minister—we wish her well on her maternity leave—but about the arrangement that the Home Secretary has made to divide up that Minister’s post between four other Ministers. Surely what is required now, with all the initiatives that the Home Secretary is quite properly undertaking, is one Minister to oversee the entry clearance operation, rather than dividing it between other Ministers, who are extremely busy at the moment.

Jacqui Smith: On the point about interviews, I know that the Home Affairs Committee recently looked at the visa operation, but I do not agree with all my right hon. Friend’s conclusions about its success. I do not think that he questioned this point, but I must reiterate the professionalism of certainly the staff whom I met when visiting our visa operations overseas. I have outlined the much more robust approach that we now take when dealing with student visas, and, rather than intervening in every single case, which some experts suggest is not the most effective way of dealing with the risk in these
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cases, it is better to have robust information and biometric information, as we now do, and to focus interviews where necessary—telephone interviews, where appropriate —on those people who are most likely to be risky. That is precisely the reason for setting up early the risk assessment unit in Pakistan—so that we are able to make that judgment and focus resources there.

I have written to my right hon. Friend about the arrangements that have been made for the maternity leave of the entry clearance Minister, but, once again, I am afraid that I disagree with him. We have put in place exactly what is necessary, including bringing in an additional Minister to cover my hon. Friend’s absence and to ensure the correct level of ministerial oversight during that leave.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement. She will be aware of the press reports that some of the arrests were weeks premature, and she said in her statement that the fact that the papers were inadvertently made public did not make any difference to the decision to carry out arrests, but that it simply changed the timing. Will she confirm that all those who were going to be arrested were arrested, and that all those who were arrested were going to be arrested within hours? Has any lasting damage been done as a result of Assistant Commissioner Quick’s indiscretion?

On the issue of bogus colleges, will the Home Secretary tell us the latest state of play on the validation of colleges? Should validation be given a higher priority in the light of those arrests, and can she estimate how many students who are in this country attending, or perhaps not attending, have not been validated?

On Pakistan, greater co-operation is welcome; the Home Secretary says that there are now greater checks on the qualifications of applicants. Can she give us more detail on what else is being done to improve checks on Pakistani nationals who come here to study and work? On the Security Industry Authority, the Home Secretary points out that there is a requirement for Criminal Records Bureau checks—those, of course, relate to UK crime. However, in these cases of foreign nationals, what steps are being taken to ensure criminal record checks in the country of origin? Surely that is the key point.

We still cannot be sure that someone who is granted a student visa will leave when it expires; thanks to the last Conservative Government, we abolished exit checks. Can the Home Secretary say how effective exit checks are in the principal ports used particularly by Pakistani students? What estimate can she give on likely over-stayers, and how many Pakistani students who have come here in the past 10 years can definitely be said to have returned home? How many cannot be accounted for?

Jacqui Smith: May I contrast the serious approach taken by the hon. Gentleman with the previous-but-one intervention?

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