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Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, at this late hour I too shall be brief. The arguments advanced by my noble friend Lord Dholakia deserve careful consideration, and I wish to adduce only two further arguments to add to those he has already made.
The powers given to immigration officers under the Bill are sweeping. They include powers to arrest without warrant, even when no offence has been committed in cases where the immigration authorities have reason to suspect that someone may be using fraudulent documents or may have tried to escape his conditions of bail, and so forth. Any form of arrest without warrant is extremely troubling in a society such as ours where the whole system of law has been consistently constrained by the need to secure a warrant before arresting someone living in this country. It is clearly a major responsibility of Parliament to look carefully if powers are ever given to arrest without warrant.
In this situation such powers may be justified because in some cases people may be trying to leave rapidly from the attempt to scrutinise their reasons for being here. Having said that, if one cannot take the measures to prevent any arrest without warrant, it is all the more important to have a system of clear accountability. The Government may respond that they have a system of accountability by extension with the PACE codes which apply to police complaints. Our argument would be that that really will not do. The powers of immigration officers are not the same as those of police officers. Their training is not the same; the job they have to do is not the same; and, unlike police officers, in many cases they will have to deal with people whose language and culture are very far removed from those of the people with whom most police constables have to deal most of the time.
In this situation there ought to be a separate complaints authority. It ought to be staffed in a different way from the Police Complaints Authority and it ought to have on it people who have knowledge of how to deal with immigration problems, who have an understanding of other countries and know
We ask the Government to think carefully about this amendment. I adduce one final argument in favour of it. It is crucial that people have trust in the good faith of immigration officers. Over many years the trust in the good faith of police officers has been built up, although I think Ministers would agree that, from time to time, even that has been shaken and they have then responded most vigorously and quickly to the kind of concerns to which cases such as the Lawrence case lead. In this case there could be more complaints because the business of the job that immigration officers have to do is frankly even more difficult than that of the police, and there are not quite so many cases where the public are only too happy to welcome their intervention.
So simply on the ground that it is critical that the immigration authorities retain the trust not only of the British community but also of those who come into this country seeking refuge, there should be a system of accountability. We on these Benches are not wholly satisfied that that has been met by the present arrangements. We are grateful for the support in principle of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, when speaking to an earlier amendment I referred to the fact that my law firm is deeply involved in immigration and asylum issues. From a severely practical point of view, there is one overwhelming virtue in the amendment. I refer to the independence that it will bestow on the complaints authority. This Government have shown a remarkably committed wish to improve race relations in this country. It is an extremely fraught area of our national life. It is full of difficulties and it is desperately difficult for all concerned to get right. Immigration and asylum are aspects of race relations which are even more difficult than the average.
I commend the Government on what they are trying to do in the Bill. However, I find it a little perplexing that there is resistance to the notion of an independent complaints authority, because the independence of a complaints authority will be of most benefit to the Immigration Service itself. I suspect that, as was found to be the case with the police, the lack of independence of the old regime was a perpetual problem, try as they would to deal fairly with the public.
I add my voice to those of my noble friends Lord Dholakia and Lady Williams. I hope that the Government will see that the issue of independence is crucial. It is crucial for the complainant; it is no less crucial for the immigration authorities; and, in a sense, it is no less crucial for the Government, because in the end it is the Government who have to pick up the mess that can be created by a general miasma of suspicion. Non-independent complaints arrangements are in a sense self-defeating.
Lord Bassam of Brighton : My Lords, I fully understand and support the reasoning behind this proposed new clause. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, for their comments. They spoke of sweeping powers", a requirement for independence", transparency" and objectivity", and said that the Government should demonstrate an understanding of the reasons for independence in a complex field of race relations and its interplay with immigration and asylum matters. We are well aware of, and alive to, the issues raised.
I fully recognise that immigration officers must be clearly accountable for their actions when exercising their powers and that an effective complaints system is vital to maintaining confidence in how they operate.
Yes, we need a system that is independent and objectively monitored. Yes, we need a system that can take quick action to eradicate malpractice. There is no argument about that. Yes, we need a system which is flexible enough to respond to different types of complaint. And yes, we need a system which is understood by those who may wish to use it. But the system needs to be proportionate to the problems that complainants typically bring forward. That is what we are looking at here.
I believe that creating a rigid, inflexible, statutory system would be a serious mistake. The framework for an administrative system in which the public can have confidence already exists, and we intend to enhance and strengthen it to ensure that it is more accessible and to ensure the proper handling of complaints arising out of the exercising of the powers contained in Part VII of the Bill. I do not believe that legislation would provide a greater degree of protection, scrutiny or transparency than already exists.
I intend to deal with the concerns about the accountability of those who operate the immigration control, which I recognise as the primary motivation behind this new clause. However, before I do so, I intend to deal with some of the serious practical difficulties that it causes.
The clause seeks to establish a complaints authority which would oversee and investigate complaints about the use of powers contained in this Bill or the 1971 Act. The exercising of powers under the Bill and the 1971 Act involves a range of persons both inside and outside the Home Office. The clause would bring police constables who exercise powers under Schedule 2 to the 1971 Act within the auspices of the immigration complaints authority. It would also include superintendent registrars exercising powers under Clause 157 of the Bill. Would its jurisdiction also extend to local authority staff involved in providing asylum support? It risks introducing a labyrinthine bureaucracy which would invariably slow down the process and delay any remedial action being taken.
Statutory systems can be rigid, hard to change, impersonal and remote and too lengthy in their response times. An unwieldy system is to the benefit of no one except those who would gain advantage from delay. We all accept that there are those who would gain such advantage in this field.
I agree entirely that the system needs to be independently and objectively monitored. An independent body, the Complaints Audit Committee, was established in 1994 to monitor the investigation of complaints against immigration officers. Members of the committee are appointed by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and must meet certain criteria, such as that outlined in the proposed new clause: experience in race relations, community relations, immigration law, customer relations and local or central government.
Members of the committee are given unfettered access to all complaint investigations and are able to make critical comment on the quality of the investigation and its conclusions. They have access to Ministers. They are required to produce an annual report for the Secretary of State. The Home Office is required to respond to the committee's recommendations and criticisms. Changes can be introduced urgently without the need for amending legislation. I do not accept that the objectivity of the Complaints Audit Committee is impaired simply because it is appointed by the Home Secretary rather than a body outside the Home office. As noble Lords are aware, the Home Office covers a wide portfolio, from race relations to immigration control and I can assure noble Lords that there is no conflict of interest.
In its last report, produced in April 1999, the committee commented favourably on the health of the immigration complaints system as audited against the headings of the Citizen's Charter and Complaints Task Force check list. It might be helpful also if I were to provide the House with figures about the current system. In 1998, only 369 complaints were lodged against the Immigration Service. Nearly 90 per cent were quality of service issues. They concerned rudeness or inefficiency of an administrative nature. As I argued earlier, we must try to keep the potential problem in proportion.
Of the 369 complaints, 30 per cent were found to be wholly or partially substantiated. That does not indicate a system which is failing to work. Rather it indicates an organisation which approaches this difficult area with openness and objectivity. Complainants are seen personally and, if appropriate, their concerns are listened to. It is a human system where wrongs can be righted quickly. I wish to make it clear that any complaint which alleges criminal activity by a member of the Immigration Service will be investigated independently by the police.
The level of complaints might appear to raise questions about the visibility of the current system. But it is worth pointing out that the Police Complaints Authority receives one complaint for every seven police officers. The Immigration Service receives one
Immigration officers will be given new powers of entry, search and seizure as a result of Part VII of the Bill. However, we intend to exercise caution in introducing the powers. Only a limited number, around 20, will be initially authorised to test and use the new powers. They will be given extensive training, with the emphasis being placed on conflict resolution and the use of interpersonal skills to diffuse difficult situations. They will only target cases where the risk is anticipated to be low. This modus operandi should help further to reduce the potential for complaints. They will be accountable in the exercise of their powers. Powers of entry, search and seizure are limited by the provisions contained in the Bill. They will be required to have regard to the relevant provisions of the PACE codes of practice when exercising the new powers.
The codes not only govern the exercise of statutory powers; they also serve to regulate the manner in which officers conduct their duties. Immigration officers will be no different. If they break operational guidelines, they will be accountable and properly disciplined.
A paper which details our existing complaints procedures and outlines the further measures we intend to take to strengthen them was placed in the Libraries of both Houses in May this year. Briefly, we shall treat complaints arising from the exercise of the new powers separately from others. They will be investigated by a small team of specially trained officers who will have knowledge of enforcement law and practice and the PACE codes. The Complaints Audit Committee will have sight of each complaint as soon as possible after receipt in order to monitor progress and ensure that investigation of the complaint is receiving the right degree of attention and priority. The procedures will be reviewed after one year to ensure that they are working satisfactorily. If they need strengthening, we can do it without legal constraint.
It is in everyone's interests, not least the immigration officers themselves, that their powers are underpinned with the proper levels of accountability and control. The codes of practice, when taken alongside the safeguards written into the legislation, the enhanced complaints procedures and the comprehensive training programme that those officers exercising the new powers will be required to undertake, provide a level of accountability which is both workable and proportionate. It protects those against whom the new powers are to be used while providing the Immigration Service with a clear and explicit framework within which to operate.
I suggest that this clause, though well meaning in intention, is not required to ensure its objective. It would be a mistake to introduce it and I cannot, therefore, invite your Lordships to support it.
Earl Russell: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, and before he nails his colours to the mast on that reply, I ask him to study the remarks of his noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton on Amendment No. 115 about the inconvenience caused to the Home Office by repeated applications for judicial review. I ask him to consider whether this alternative may be preferable to that one.
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