Mark speaks on immigration

November 2, 2006 12:00 AM
By Mark Hunter in Westminster Hall

Before I begin my own remarks, I wish to pay tribute to the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). She eloquently set out the case for changes to the way in which this country deals with the problem of forced marriages. I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to her contribution.

I am pleased that this topic has been introduced for debate in the House this afternoon. Immigration in general terms and, more specifically, the way in which we deal with the pressures of increasing migration are of huge importance to our country and are likely to be even more critical in coming years. Indeed, reports in the national press today reveal that we are currently experiencing the second-highest levels of long-term immigration into Britain since 1991.

It is difficult to overestimate the positive contribution that immigrants have made to our country over the years in economic, cultural and social terms, and I do not hesitate to preface my speech with that assertion. However, the system must be managed in a fair, efficient and humane way. That must be done to ensure that abuses such as we have heard about today are not allowed to flourish, that our economy can grow and that we can maintain community cohesion.

It is crucial that we continue to debate immigration in Parliament. Of all the issues that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, it is perhaps the one that most requires open and frank debate. Hon. Members will be fully aware of the myths and scare stories that abound if we allow a vacuum to develop. It is up to us to lead the way and to inform the public in a reasonable and rational way.

It is also important that we do that because the success of an immigration policy relies, to a great extent, on public confidence. The repercussions of a situation whereby the population lose faith and trust in the Government's ability to control the borders are serious, to say the least. We all know that, without confidence, extremism will thrive and community cohesion will be damaged. Even the Government have to concede that events of the past few months have dented public confidence in Britain's immigration system. Those failures have been amply demonstrated by the Home Affairs Committee, which deserves our gratitude for its thorough work.

The foreign prisoners debacle, corruption, deception and, of course, a Home Secretary admitting that his Department was not fit for purpose-all those calamities demonstrate the urgency of an inquiry such as this one. Reading the Select Committee report and the Government's subsequent response, one gets an interesting insight into how our immigration system has functioned under this and, indeed, previous Governments.

The various reports we have before us today demonstrate starkly that the Home Office and, in particular, the immigration and nationality directorate have suffered from political mishandling on such a scale that it has made effective management of the operation virtually impossible. Perhaps most damaging is the assertion that political interference in respect of asylum statistics allowed the foreign prisoners scandal to emerge. There certainly seems to be evidence that the political pressure to remove failed asylum seekers directly influenced the rest of the operation.

However, it would not be entirely fair to suggest that the Select Committee's inquiry and the Government's response are purely negative. I hope that the various reports will serve as a wake-up call to the Government to remind them to focus on making the system work. Some of the suggestions made by the Committee reveal the surprising levels of incompetence that have existed in the system. The fact that guidance notes need to be made more accurate, that various authorities involved in the system need to work together better, that training, particularly for temporary staff, has been inadequate all point to a failing system that has been meddled with by politicians who in some cases prefer to talk tough and raise public expectations while not necessarily acting competently. As the Government have rushed to appease sections of the press on asylum seekers, they have lost their focus on managing the system as a whole.

As I said, there are things in the reports to be welcomed. Improvements in the quality of information for applicants is certainly welcome, and, if implemented properly, will no doubt provide positive outcomes for applicants and the Home Office staff who have to deal with them.

The overall simplification of immigration rules, laws and guidance is also to be welcomed. The complexity of the current situation is testament to a series of reflex-some might say panic-measures brought in by successive Home Secretaries. In many cases, they have caused chaos. The points-based system for immigration, which is supported by Liberal Democrats, will, I hope, assist in achieving simplification. However, as we have seen time and again with this Government on Home Affairs issues, their reflex action is to legislate and complicate the issue rather than concentrate on getting the basics right. Endless new legislation is self-evidently not always the right action, as events of the past few years have amply demonstrated.

"Exporting the border" is a welcome ambition, but it will rely on staff and management systems being joined up in a coherent way. That simply is not the case at present, and I am nervous about the greater use of contract staff abroad if we want to achieve a smoother operation.

In their response to the Select Committee's findings, the Government have given a large number of undertakings which, if fulfilled, will undoubtedly improve the current system, and I am pleased that their response to the criticisms has been more candid than is sometimes the case. I congratulate them on that. I do not, however, have complete confidence that the Government will change their ways, for several key reasons. Primarily, I am not convinced that Ministers will be able to resist further meddling in the system. It would take a shift of seismic proportions in the way in which the Government do business for them to resist the urge to please the media at the expense of running a competent immigration system.

Only in the past few weeks, the Government have found themselves forced into intervening on the issue of immigrants from new European Union accession states. Instead of liaising with their partners in the European Union over the past few months to ensure the pressure on our borders was reduced, they appear to have panicked once again and emergency measures have had to be taken. That is another knee-jerk reaction that could and should have been avoided months in advance. It demonstrates, too, that the lessons of immigration from Poland were not learnt adequately or quickly enough.

Who could forget the badly thought through suggestion that we could have an amnesty for illegal immigrants? Of course the idea was dropped as hastily as it seems it was dreamt up, but it hardly inspires confidence. Furthermore, I do not have complete confidence that we have heard the end of the corruption scandals, such as the one that was revealed at Lunar house a few months ago. If the Minister can tell us how many police investigations are ongoing in that regard, I would be grateful. The anecdotal evidence that I have heard suggests that there is a danger that we may have seen only the tip of the iceberg. It is as yet unclear whether corruption in the service is systemic or not.

Many of the proposed improvements we have read about also include new information technology systems. Throughout government, we have witnessed disaster after disaster in that regard and I am afraid that it will take a major change in fortune for the proposals to be implemented without further difficulties.

Overall, I urge the Government to take the recommendations of the Select Committee seriously, and I am sure that they will. They should look to ensure that politicians can no longer stifle the sound management of our immigration system. They should perhaps take a leaf out of my party's book. We have suggested making asylum issues more independent of government through a new asylum agency, in a way that has operated successfully in Canada for some time. In fact, it is worth noting that in Canada only 1 per cent. of asylum appeals are overturned on appeal compared with a figure closer to 20 per cent. in the UK. The Government should concentrate less on sounding tough and devote more time to allowing staff to get on with the job. Only then will we be able to say that we have confidence in our immigration system.

What would you like to do next?