Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400
TUESDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2000
MP, AND MR
400. To IND?
(Mr Boys Smith) To IND, on which we will, as appropriate,
consult if need be with other Departments. In the context of people
coming in to set up their own businesses, we are well used to
looking at applications of that kind.
401. I am sorry, I did not understand that this
was a trawl for entrepreneurs, I thought this was to meet an alleged
(Mr Boys Smith) One aspect of the changes already
made is the Entrepreneurs Scheme to which the Home Secretary referred.
(Mr Straw) There were changes made in the Work Permit
Scheme. Do you want to explain those?
(Mr Boys Smith) The work permit changes were to facilitate,
for example, people who wanted to stay on after a period of study,
to remain in the country, without having to leave the country
and reapply. In a number of administrative ways to ease up the
present work permit system. Again, all subject, therefore, to
control and vetting.
402. How long after their studying in the United
Kingdom would it be anticipated they would stay? Is there a finite
period or is it just indefinite?
(Mr Boys Smith) If they establish themselves in employment
and then are here for the requisite period, then they will be
able to stay indefinitely as somebody already under the Work Permit
Scheme will be able to do. In that sense, there is no fundamental
change. It is to facilitate movement into the economy of those
able to operate effectively.
(Mr Straw) Under the Work Permit Scheme people are
physically given a period which is time limited.
403. It is a limited period?
(Mr Straw) Yes.
404. What is the average, any idea?
(Mr Straw) I think it is up to five years but I would
have to send you a letter about that.
405. Home Secretary, forgive me pressing you
but I do think it is quite material we try and establish exactly
what it is in a major area of Government policy that is being
sought and what problem is being addressed. Personally I find
it difficult to reconcile this apparent shortage of skills, particularly
in the IT world, with the fact that something like 3,000 independent
IT consultants have been driven out by the Chancellor's IR35 policy.
Rather than having joined-up government, as the Chairman was inviting
you to suggest there was, it does seem to some people that the
Chancellor is driving people out and the Minister of State at
the Home Office is inviting those same skills back in again but
not from British nationals, from foreigners?
(Mr Straw) I note what you say about IR35. I do not
agree with what you say about it.
406. Do you not agree people have been driven
out by it?
(Mr Straw) I have seen no evidence of that but that
is not directly my area. What is unquestionably the case is that
there is a very high demand for people with IT skills in this
country and we are competing with other countries for these skills.
When I was in India on an official trip with Mr Boys Smith in
September I met a number of very substantial business people in
Mumbai and they were talking about the way in which the skills
of their employees were being sought after by firms in the United
Kingdom, but also in Germany and the United States. I am pleased
to say that one of these chaps volunteered to me that it was a
lot easier and more straightforward to get work permits for people
to the United Kingdom than it was for the USA or Germany. I said
we hope to make it easier for those who are genuine and who have
got the skills because this is, as it were, a mutual trade in
skills which we wish to open up. Mr Howarth, you ask me what is
it we are doing. Well, Mr Boys Smith has explained the change
announced on 4 September which is to encourage entrepreneurs,
which I hope Members of your party will agree with, and the other
changes in the Work Permit Regulations. We cannot say for certain
what the numbers will be but they will be fairly limited. To go
back to the question the Chairman put to me about the next stage
following Barbara's speech, I see this very much, as I say, as
an iterative process where we get the debate going, we make changes
which appear to carry wide support for which there is a good case.
We then take stock and we make more changes if that is necessary.
Of course at any one stage, because it is the immigration rules,
if we find something is not working then we can withdraw that
407. Quite clearly there are consequences which
flow from a further wave of immigration in order to meet what
we all perceive to be a skills shortage, but, as I say, not only
are people concerned that one part of Government is making it
difficult for those skills to remain in the United Kingdom, but
also people would say we still have just under 1 million people
unemployed, so should we not be doing something to encourage our
own people to develop those skills so that we do not have need
of this policy?
(Mr Straw) First of all, I entirely refute your suggestion
that the introduction of the IR35 has driven people out. That
is simply not the case. If you want to swap statistics about the
vibrancy of our economy compared with other EU countries, I am
happy to do so.
408. I do not think I am.
(Mr Straw) We have got the best performing economy
in Europe at the moment, and the fact that we have now overtaken
Italy and France and become the world's fourth largest economy
is proof of that. Nor is there a contradiction between getting
people with IT skills into this country and providing more job
opportunities for those 1 million people who are still on the
unemployment register. By expanding businesses here we open job
opportunities for other people, and almost by definition a significant
proportion of the million or so who are left on the unemployment
register are the people with lower skills rather than higher skills.
There are still jobs with lower skills in any organisation, including
high-tech IT organisations, and it needs entrepreneurs and software
engineers to get that going.
409. You have talked a lot about the pull factors
which attract potential immigrants to this country. I think it
would be fair to say that there are some that one can do nothing
about, such as language or family ties, and some that the Government
can do something about, such as speed of decision making, cash
benefits and access to public services. I think it would be very
useful to the Committee as we get to the end of this inquiry to
have your opinion on the extent to which you think the relative
importance of these pull factors is, firstly on genuine refugees
and, secondly, and maybe more importantly, on economic migrants.
(Mr Straw) There are some that we can do nothing about,
namely the fact that we speak English and that is now the lingua
franca of the world, and I think one of the huge privileges
of speaking English is that this language is shared by so many
people in the rest of the world, but we cannot do anything about
that. We should not do anything about the fact that we have had
a record of very considerable tolerance of people coming into
this country. It has not been good enough, but it has certainly
been better than most European countries, and I am very proud
of that and certainly do not want to do anything adverse about
that record. There are other pull factors, as you suggest, which
have played a part, not so much, I believe, in the decision of
people who are well-founded applicants for asylum to settle here,
but certainly played a part in the decisions on applications that
are unfounded. Those factors have included availability of cash
benefits, which the previous Government carried on for port applicants
and would have carried on by their voting for the Bishop of Southwark's
amendment in the Lords for port applicants for a considerable
period in the future. That was one pull factor. A second has been
the tardiness of decision making. It has taken about 20 months
to make decisions. That has now speeded up considerably. We are
already meeting the two plus four month time frame for most family
cases, which is what I said we would do and have a track record
for doing so before we brought the NASS scheme into effect for
families and children, and make that available for that group
for a year. So we are speeding up the process. The other pull
factor has been the issue of removals, and a lot of effort and
investment is now going into improving removals.
(Mr Boys Smith) Just on the timing of two months.
We are now on target to deliver the two months from the start
of the next financial year for the majority, not just for the
families, but for all cases.
410. That is very encouraging. My colleagues
had the opportunity of talking to some of the people in Sangatte
who were hoping to come into this country and they obviously asked
them what the main pull factor was for them given that they were
already in a safe country, which was France. One answer that came
up quite frequently was access to public services in this country.
We are coming back to that later in the questions. Since the Immigration
and Asylum Act has been in force have you had any reason to revise
your assessment of the relative effect of the different pull factors
and, specifically, do you think cash benefits was as big a pull
factor as you feared it might be?
(Mr Straw) When cash benefits were generally available
there was always that 100 per cent take-up. Originally the brief
by the previous Government was to end entitlement of in-country
applicants to any kind of benefit from the state at all, and you
will recall, Mr Linton, that it was pointed out by us when the
1996 Act was going through the House that this was (a) inhumane
and (b) unsustainable, because you cannot have people starving.
In the event the courts decided since ministers would now be willing,
specifically, to exclude the operation of the National Assistance
Act and Insurance Act from benefit to asylum seekers and their
families, that obligation on the local authorities continued to
apply. The effect of that was that they moved from cash benefit
entitlement to entitlement in kind. The local authorities provided
that and there was a very substantial reduction in the take-up
of that benefit. That was very important evidence in my decision
and was absolutely endorsed by the House to move away from cash
benefits for port applicants to the National Asylum Support System
where you can provide accommodation in kind and provide a mixture
of vouchers and cash for day-to-day support. Of course these factors
are difficult to pin down mathematically. What I can say is that
since some, but not all, of these changes began to come into force,
the level of applications has stabilised for asylum in this country,
whilst in other European countriesand there are some key
ones, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgiumit appears to
be rising. There is no doubt too that the introduction of the
civil penalty has had a number of very important benefits in terms
of improving control. One which I had not anticipated was that
this, in turn, has led to very considerable pressure by French
hauliers on the Chamber of Commerce in Calais, who run the port,
to improve, quickly, security at Calais. The civil penalty has
done more in a matter of months than conversations with the French
Government have done in years.
411. Would you say, from the experience so far,
that the voucher scheme and the switch to largely non-cash benefits
has had an effect on the relative number of asylum seekers?
(Mr Straw) To quantify it is very difficult, but I
am not in any doubt at all that had we not introduced the changes
in the 1999 Act, which included the speeding up of decision making
and the associated investment, the one stop shop for appeals which
has only just come into force, civil penalty, NASS are now in
time, a very important change which is yet properly to roll out
which is the control of unscrupulous immigration advisers, if
those changes had not come in then asylum applications would have
continued to rise.
412. Would you hazard any estimates of the trend,
either in the number of asylum seekers or in the general level
of people coming into this country?
(Mr Straw) You will excuse me for passing this back,
but if you can predict to me what is going to happen in terms
of political stability or instability in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan,
Iran, Sri Lanka and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, I could
then tell you whether I thought these pressures would continue.
Those are the top six countries for asylum applicants. The principal
driver of asylum applicants, unfounded as well as well-founded
applicants, is political instability elsewhere, as well as rising
poverty. You then come to countries like China where there is
a specific problem; Turkey where there is the issue of Kurdistan
and the border they share with Iraq; Sierra Leone, whose instability
is well known; Albania, where there are some consequences which
flow from the Kosovan war; Algeria and then countries like India
where remarkably few asylum applicants have any justification
whatever, but given the fact that there are situations of abuse
of human rights in India, those applications, like any other,
have to be examined.
413. When we come on to countries that you,
I think, term as reasonably safe, countries like Eastern Europe
and North Africa, where a lot of the asylum seekers do actually
come from, would you expect to see a flattening out or reduction
in the numbers?
(Mr Straw) We would hope to see, is the answer, and
I think there has been some
(Mr Boys Smith) On Eastern Europe there has been a
(Mr Straw) I think that is as a result of greatly
improved enforcement and it is more straightforward to return
those people. You may like to knowand it was agreed that
I could make this publicthat when I met the German Minister
of the Interior last week he was explaining about their policy
in Germany and he told me that they have 500,000 people in Germany
who have exhausted all rights of appeal and yet cannot be removed,
and for whom they continue to pay welfare payments. Half a million.
Their initial backlog is relatively small, 35,000, but that is
only up to the point of initial decision. They then have a four
stage appeal process. They could not give me the figures for the
total backlog in that, but I think it is well over 100,000. Then,
once those have been exhausted they have this very large number.
414. Do you have equivalent figures for the
number of unreturned?
(Mr Straw) No, we do not, but I think it is going
to be many fewer than that. In terms of where we stand in terms
of asylum applicantsthis is up to the first half of the
year, June 2000we are seventh by head of population within
415. Seventh lowest or seventh highest?
(Mr Straw) Seventh highest, with Belgium, Ireland,
the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria. I think we are falling
so far as the United Kingdom is concerned. Belgium is the highest,
1.8, and then Ireland, 1.4, and United Kingdom is at 0.8.
Mr Linton: As a Fulham supporter I have to be
sceptical about the latter assertion.
416. Home Secretary, can I ask you a question
or two about organised crime, which we all know is a major issue.
I have just come back from a conference in Rome attended by Parliamentarians
from all over Europe and the Anti-Mafia Commission. Would it surprise
you to hear that there was universal approval from all the European
politicians and civil servants, except me, for the proposition
that we should have a common legal area throughout Europe in relation
to organised crime, a European prosecutor and new European legal
code to cover the whole situation, and a common police force leading
to a single police force. How angry would you have been to hear
(Mr Straw) I would not have been angry but I would
have disagreed with those propositions. I am quite surprised that
you were alone, I think you must be keeping bad company.
417. Not even Mr Howarth was with me.
(Mr Straw) Of course these propositions have been
around in Europe but they are not widely endorsed, even by continental
members of the Justice & Home Affairs Council. For example,
on corpus juris, everybody accepts that the idea of having
a single so-called legal space in Europe is an impossibility,
I happen to think it is undesirable too. I thought about this
a good deal. To have a single jurisdiction would be to have a
single jurisprudence which also, since the law is deeply embodied
in the culture of each country, would be to have a single history,
you cannot do that. A great deal of the law of any country derives
initially from the law of property, that is on ownership of land.
The ownership of land has developed in different ways in different
countries and until you establish who owns what you cannot really
establish, for example, who can thieve from whom and trespass
on what. To try and overturn centuries of history in each of these
countries is a near impossibility and it is scarcely worth trying.
If you look at a country like France, which had a very violent
revolution in the 18th century, you see that even despite this
very violent revolution, which was not least to overturn the power
of the aristocracy, they have carried on with most of their traditions
of land holding, so it is actually not a possibility.
418. I am very glad.
(Mr Straw) Can I say, in a speech in Avignon, which
I made in October 1998, I set out the British Government's approach
to this issue of how you had better secure co-operation between
Member States of Europe in order that we can more effectively
fight organised crime which has no respect of borders and never
has had. What I proposed was that in place of chasing this kite
of a single European legal space, which was neither possible nor
desirable, so I suggest you might as well forget it, what we should
seek to an extent is mutual recognition of our legal systems.
That was widely welcomed at that conference. A huge amount of
work has been going on on this ever since. That is the practical
agenda for action. On the European prosecutor, again we are not
going to see a European prosecutor and it is accepted that is
not on the agenda. What is needed instead is much better co-operation
between European Member States, and this is the practical agenda
we are following.
419. These views are very welcome in the Conservative
(Mr Straw) I am glad to know you are now adopting
the New Labour approach to Europe.
1 See Appendix 27. Back