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Lord Renton: Surely it is fairer that an employer should be alerted by statute to the fact that he must make sure in advance that he will not be committing an offence by employing someone who is an illegal immigrant than that he should speculatively take a chance in the hope that nothing will come to light, at any rate for two months, which might make it an offence. That is not only fair but it is common sense and I hope that the Government will resist the amendment.
Baroness Rawlings: Is this not a case in which, as we heard earlier from my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, there would be more simplicity and less opportunity for error if we held identity cards? They are gaining support from the general law-abiding public, and I believe that the Government are considering them. That might be an answer for the noble Lord, Lord Dubs.
Earl Russell: The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, tempts me to a memory of an occasion when one member of my family lost his identity card. Such things happen and they can cause a great deal of trouble.
The noble Lord, Lord Renton, raised a question that is worth thinking about. I agree that two months may be a long time; but, on the other hand, not every immigrant applying for a job, and not every person applying for a job who knows that he is not an immigrant because he was British-born, knows that an employer will ask him for documents and will necessarily have all the right documents with him on the day he turns up. Would it help the noble Lord, Lord Renton, if we were to specify "on the first day of employment"? By then the applicant could be given a specification of exactly what documents he needed and could go home and get them. I do not believe that everyone will know what they are meant to have with them--
Lord Renton: I listened carefully to the noble Earl. If a person applies for a job and the employer has reason to believe that he may be an illegal immigrant and asks, "Where are your documents? I want to make sure about the situation"--which under the law he will be required to do--he would also be entitled to say to the immigrant, "Look here, if you say you have got documents, how soon can you bring them? Tomorrow, the day after or next Monday? If you bring them then, I shall carefully consider employing you".
Earl Russell: That is a concession for which I am extremely grateful and to which I hope the Government will listen. But the noble Lord tempts me also to ask one of the crucial questions in relation to this clause. He says, "If the employer has reason to suspect that the person may be an illegal immigrant". What would be such a reason?
Baroness Blatch: The explanation given by my noble friend Lord Renton is not a concession but is the fact. If someone comes forward for a job and the employer asks for documentation and the person says, "Well, I do not have it with me but I can produce it", on producing it, that is an end to it. The person may then take up the job.
Amendment No. 85 would provide an employer with a defence if he could show that one of the specified documents had been produced to him within two months of the employment starting. At present the clause specifies that the document should have been produced to the employer before the employment began.
The suggestion that there should be a period of grace allowed to employers within which they could establish their defence was put forward by a small number of those who responded to our consultation document on the prevention of illegal working. I understand that those who have advocated a period of grace have had a number of different objectives in mind.
One is that a period of grace would benefit those sectors of the economy where a significant proportion of employments currently have fairly informal recruitment procedures and often involve immediate, and perhaps very short time, hire. I believe that the licensed trade and the hospitality and catering sector more generally
Another is that a period of grace would prevent the introduction of potential delays into the recruitment process while documentation was requested. I know that this has been a concern to some employers.
I can understand why some employers have found the idea of a period of grace attractive--although the suggested two months does represent an unduly long time to establish a defence. However, it is clear that a period of grace would seriously weaken the impact of Clause 8. Even a very short period would do that. It would provide a loophole which could be used by unscrupulous racketeers trying to evade the impact of the clause. If the bill were amended in this way, there would be nothing to stop racketeers moving employees between jobs for short-term periods, so that they always worked for fewer than two months at a time and never had to produce any documentation. My noble friend Lady Seccombe made that point.
A period of grace would also, in our view, effectively exclude from the terms of the offence all genuine short-term employments and a lot of casual work. Immigration Service experience suggests that a significant proportion of illegal working occurs in such employments. This amendment would therefore considerably reduce the effectiveness of the clause.
While I can understand the concerns of those who seek a period of grace, it is not unreasonable to assume that the new requirement will have an effect on the recruitment process. At present there is no need for a person to carry certain documentation when seeking employment unless it has specifically been asked for. As a result, it will therefore rarely be available. However, our expectation will be that such documentation will be readily available in many more cases because it will be understood that the offer of employment may be dependent on its production.
I believe that Amendment No. 88 is intended to relate quite directly to Amendment No. 85 as it would attempt to retain a requirement on employers to have considered the question of whether employment of an individual would constitute an offence before the employment began. However, we will be considering that amendment separately in due course. I urge the Committee to reject this amendment.
Earl Russell: I listened with care to the Minister. Again, she is becoming extremely alarmed about unscrupulous employers. Again, it makes me wants to ask about the question of priorities which has been worrying me throughout the debates on this clause. We all agree that we must prevent illegal working and we all agree that we must avoid placing unnecessary burdens on business. The question is as to the comparative weight which we give to those two factors.
When the noble Baroness talks about unscrupulous employers, she sounds a little as though she were discussing the spread of the plague of bacillus. She makes it sound extremely dangerous and exciting. Why
Baroness Blatch: The noble Earl has just made an ingenuous comment. I am not over-excited and this matter has not been given any greater priority than anything else in the Bill. We believe that it is part of a package of measures needed to tackle a problem.
Secondly, I said earlier that we know that in 1994 more than 10,000 people were working here illegally. That is 10,000 jobs which were denied to people who are here in a bona fide manner and who could have taken up those jobs. Every job that is taken by somebody who is illegally in this country is denied to a person who is legally in this country and looking for work. Therefore, we do regard this as an important matter. We believe that the period of grace would produce a loophole and would allow the practice to continue. It is our job and our intention that that should be stopped. But we are not putting that at the top of the agenda; it is part of a complete package. That package consists of providing more money to tackle the problem; to have more people working within the system; to have more technology to speed up the system; and to introduce legal measures which will combat the problem from all angles.
Earl Russell: I am very sorry that the noble Baroness should think that I was making an ingenuous comment. I asked that question in very genuine puzzlement and I have been puzzled throughout the debate on this and on the previous clause. I badly wanted an answer and I have not received one. Of course we are agreed that those 10,000 people should not have been working and that in many cases, they are taking jobs from other people. My recollection--and it is only a recollection because I have not found the relevant page in my papers--is that the cost of the clause to business is estimated at being around £11 million. That is a rather expensive way of buying jobs. If a proposal to buy jobs in that way had come from this side of the Committee, I cannot help wondering whether the Government would have described them as "bogus" jobs.
A very high priority is being given here to the prevention of illegal immigration. Granted that there are many ills which this country faces--and that is one of them--we believe that the Bill is making it rather more important than all the rest. I genuinely do not understand why that is so, but I would like to.
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