HC Deb 23 July 1980 vol 989 cc644-9
Mr. Rifkind

I beg to move amendment No. 76, in page 57, line 27 [Schedule 1], at end insert—

ters where it was agreeable both to the prosecution and the defence it would be possible for these matters to be dealt with by a certificate.

The procedure proposed in the amendment is in all important aspects the same as that presently carried out in England and Wales. That has led to no criticism on this aspect of the law.

Mr. Buchan

We cannot allow this amendment to pass without comment. This is a routine type of evidence, which is acceptable when in the hands of those who know what they are doing, but for those who are covered by the social security clauses, to which we have tabled an amendment, and particularly those covered by the Immigration Act, it is far too dangerous a procedure. This provision should not be introduced here. The normal procedure for bringing evidence in immigration cases—the normal paraphernalia of evidence of identification and everything else—should be used. This method alone is not good enough.

Mr. Rifkind

Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that this procedure applies only when it is acceptable to the defence. If the defence wishes evidence to be brought in the normal way it has that right up to the moment of trial. This procedure has existed for some time elsewhere in the United Kingdom. There has been no evidence to suggest that this aspect of immigration law is controversial in England and Wales. Many aspects of immigration law are, of course, controversial, but this provision has caused no concern to the bodies and individuals most affected by it.

Mr. Buchan

With respect to the Under-Secretary—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has exhausted his right to speak on the amendment.

Mr. Buchan

May I then, Mr. Deputy Speaker, put the following extensive question? I accept that this provision may be used only if the defence agrees. But the defence may be a solicitor instructed by an immigrant, or the immigrant himself. In either case I am not sure that immigrants who have to relate to a certificate giving the date, place or means of his arrival in, or any removal of him from, the United Kingdom; … any limitation in relation to his conditions, and so forth, will have the capacity to do that either personally or to instruct a solicitor to do it.

I am not reassured by the fact that no other bodies have objected. One hon. Member has objected, and that is sufficient. I ask the Under-Secretary to think again. We are objecting to it on the basis of the social security provisions. Often the people most in need of support are those covered by the provisions of the social security laws. That applies even more in this case. We objected to the speed at which this matter was dealt with in Committee. I am surprised to see it brought back here. If it is not to be withdrawn I shall certainly oppose it.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman genuinely misunderstands the amendment. It does not have the implications that he indicated. If this provision had created the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman envisaged it would have led to representations elsewhere in the United Kingdom from all the immigrant bodies who would have been concerned about the application of the procedure. They are concerned about many aspects of our immigration procedure and have made representations in other areas. I am not aware of any objections by immigrant bodies or anyone else about the way in which the system has worked in England and Wales for a considerable time.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern. An earlier amendment approved by the House today makes it abundantly clear that even if some days before the trial an immigrant does not appreciate the significance of what is proposed, and is represented by a lawyer at the last moment, there is provision for a lawyer to apply on his behalf, up to the beginning of the trial, for the provision to be dispensed with and for the witnesses to be required to be present in court to speak to the evidence. The interests of an accused person are entirely safeguarded. Only when he or his legal representative—and legal representatives are there to advise him—feel that it is safe to allow the procedure to be applied will it be applied.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's legitimate concern, but on the basis of my remarks I ask him to consider the experience of similar procedure elsewhere in Britain and accept that as far as I am aware it has not led to any concern on the part of immigrant bodies. They recognise that in a case in which it is considered necessary for the witnesses to be personally present, they are present. They are entitled to expect that safeguard, and the clause guarantees it.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Harry Ewing

I beg to move amendment No. 77, in page 57, line 28, leave out from beginning to end of line 16 on page 58.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) said, social security matters are very sensitive. The assurance given by the Minister that if the defence decides not to accept the serving of a certificate it would not be served is not sufficient protection in the case of sensitive social security matters. For that reason, we ask the Government seriously to consider deleting the Social Security Act 1975, the Child Benefit Act 1975 and the Supplementary Benefits Act 1975 from Schedule 1.

Mr. Dewar

I rise to support the amendment. I have had no experience of immigration cases, but I have considerable experience of social security cases. Very often the allegedly formal and routine matters dealt with under the procedures are the kernel of the prosecution because they are the essential things that must be proved. It is not simply a matter of clearing away peripheral formalities. We are talking about the proving of payments that are the essence of the alleged offence.

It would be dangerous to put them on that basis. I do not believe that the right to challenge them will be picked up often. In many social security prosecutions there is no legal representation. It is reasonable to expect accused persons to realise the significance of the procedure. They will not make the proper objection and, to put it bluntly, they will be done—even though they may have a good defence. It is a cause for some concern, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that.

Mr. Rifkind

I recall that the issue was raised in Committee, when hon. Members expressed their concern. As a consequence, we considered closely whether the argument put forward justified the exclusion of those aspects from the clause. There is the safeguard that the provisions can apply only if the defence do not object. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) made the perfectly fair point that a person involved in a social security allegation may not be legally represented, and therefore may not know six days before the trial whether he wishes to object.

We tried specifically to respond to that case in an earlier Government amendment by making it clear that, up to the beginning of the trial, if an objection were made to the certification procedure the court had to ensure that the witnesses attended. The hon. Gentleman indicated that in a case where a person was not legally represented it should be necessary to prove those matters. In the vast majority of cases the social security officers appear in court, give exactly the same evidence as is in the certificates, sit down, and are not cross-examined.

10.30 pm

If the person is represented, by definition it is possible to anticipate points and the objection can be made. If we are talking about the position in which a person is not represented, the point is that in 99 per cent. of such cases it does not make any difference whether the person is formally in court. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Garscadden indicates that he is concerned about the sufficiency of evidence, but the evidence that is given is exactly the evidence that is in the certificate, and it is rarely cross-examined.

We have the tremendous administrative inconvenience of large numbers of people having to come to court arid give formal evidence that is not cross-examined or disputed. In the vast majority of cases, rather than putting a lot of people to unnecessary inconvenience in non-controversial areas it should be sensible, if the defence has not objected, to allow the certification procedure to be used.

That is not unreasonable. It is a sensible balance between the legitimate interests of the accused to have the case proved—the case will still require to be proved—and the interests of trying to reduce to a minimum the inconvenience caused to witnesses whose evidence is not controversial and who often have to wait many hours before giving their evidence, who give it in about 30 seconds, and who are not cross-examined.

It is on that basis that I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able not to press the amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Forward to