HC Deb 21 February 1996 vol 272 cc368-89

'.—(1) It shall be an offence for a person who is not a qualified person within the meaning of this section to undertake for reward (whether by himself or through his servants or agents, or otherwise) the business of giving advice to, making representations on behalf of or acting as the representative of a person in respect of a matter to which subsection (2) of this section applies unless he is registered as an immigration law practitioner with the Immigration Practitioners Registration Authority ("the Authority") established under this section.

(2) This subsection applies to applications to—

  1. (a) an immigration officer, or
  2. (b) the Secretary of State for the Home Department, or
  3. (c) the Department of Education and Employment made by or on behalf of another person who does not have the right of abode in the United Kingdom for—
    1. (i) leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom, or
    2. (ii) asylum in the United Kingdom, or
    3. (iii) revocation of a decision to deport that person from the United Kingdom, or
    4. (iv) a residence permit or document, or
    5. (v)a work permit.

(3) For the purposes of this section, "qualified person" means a person who is—

  1. (a) a lawyer who is subject to the disciplinary jurisdiction of the Law Society or Bar Council in respect of any services which relate to a matter to which subsection (2) above applies; or
  2. (b) an employee of an advisory organisation or registered charity approved by the Authority; or
  3. (c) an employee of a qualified person who is registered under this section.

(4) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) above shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

(5) Proceedings for an offence under subsection (1) above may be brought only by the Authority.

(6) It shall be the duty of the Lord Chancellor to appoint such person or persons as he considers to be fit and proper to constitute the Authority.

(7) It shall be the duty of the Lord Chancellor to make regulations to give effect to the establishment of the Authority under this section, which may include provisions for—

  1. (a) fees payable for applications for registration;
  2. (b) requirements for registration, including requirements as to—
    1. (i) how the Authority is to be satisfied of the competence of a registered person to act as an immigration practitioner,
    2. (ii) the proper management of the business of a registered practitioner,
    3. (iii) the keeping of records,
    4. (iv) the supervision of employees, and
    5. (v) such other professional standards in the carrying on of a business as are considered necessary;
  3. (c) powers to impose conditions on registration and to cancel registration where there has been a failure to comply with any such conditions;
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  5. (d) the giving of written notice of lists of approved organisations, decisions to register, refusals to register and revocations of registration; and
  6. (e) such other matters so as to regulate the procedures to be adopted where the Authority is minded to refuse a registration or revoke a registration.

(8) Regulations under this section shall be made by statutory instrument which shall be laid before Parliament in draft and shall be subject to approval by resolution of each House.

(9) Where the Authority has reasonable grounds to suspect that—

  1. (a) the terms of registration have been breached, or
  2. (b) that an offence under subsection (1) above has been committed by a person who is neither a qualified nor a registered person, it may apply by written information to a circuit judge for a warrant to enter premises occupied by or on behalf of such a person, or other premises specified by the Authority where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that documents or other records will be found belonging to or held by such a person which relate to matters to which subsection (2) above applies.

(10) Any written information made under subsection (9) above must state the grounds for suspicion and the class of documents or records that the Authority consider will be relevant to the discharge of its duties under this section.

(11) Where the Authority has entered premises pursuant to a warrant issued under subsection (9) above it may take possession of any such documents or other material found on the premises as are specified in the warrant; and it may hold such material solely and for so long as is necessary to discharge its duties under this section; and it may not disclose such material to any person other than in the course of discharging its functions under his Act save to the owner of the documents or to such other persons as the owner may have authorised.

(12) There shall be a right of appeal to the High Court against a refusal of registration or the imposition of any condition on registration or the revocation of registration by the Authority; and no revocation of registration shall have effect while any such appeal is pending.

(13) In this section, "to undertake for reward" means to carry out an activity in return for payment to which the person carrying out the activity is entitled, whether by contract or otherwise.'.—[Mr. Straw.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.40 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss new clause 7—Council for licensed immigration advisers

'.—(1) There shall be a body to be known as the Council for Licensed Immigration Advisers.

(2) It shall be the general duty of the Council to ensure that the standards of competence and professional conduct among persons who practice as licensed immigration advisers are sufficient to secure adequate protection for their clients, and that immigration advisory services offered by such persons are provided both economically and efficiently.

(3) The Council shall, with the approval of the Lord Chancellor, make rules relating to the education and training of those seeking to practise as licensed immigration advisers, and those rules shall, in particular, include provisions prescribing—

  1. (a) the examinations to be taken by such persons, and
  2. (b) requirements as to practical training and experience.

(4) The Council shall issue licences to permit persons to practise as licensed immigration advisers, and shall have power to revoke those licences or to place conditions on those licences.

(5) The Council shall maintain a register of licensed immigration advisers, and shall make it available for inspection by the public.

(6) The Council may, with the approval of the Lord Chancellor—

  1. (a) make such charges for the issuing of a licence as may be necessary to cover its administrative costs; and
  2. (b) require applicants for a licence to deposit a bond or other security which may be forfeit in circumstances specified in rules made under subsection (7) below.

(7) The Council shall, with the approval of the Lord Chancellor, make and publish rules as to professional practice, conduct and discipline for licensed immigration advisers.

(8) In approving rules made under this section, the Lord Chancellor shall have regard to the desirability of maintaining necessary protection for persons seeking advice on immigration and asylum matters without imposing unnecessary burdens on those whose business includes the provision of such advice.

(9) The Council shall have powers of investigation where a breach of its rules by a licensed immigration adviser is suspected, and these powers shall include the power to intervene in a licensed immigration adviser's practice, to inspect the accounts of a licensed immigration adviser, and to require the production of documents by any person involved in the operation of a licensed immigration advisory practice.

(10) The Council may, with the approval of the Lord Chancellor, make rules—

  1. (a) making provision as to the management and control by licensed immigration advisers of bodies corporate undertaking the provision of immigration advisory services;
  2. (b) prescribing the circumstances in which such bodies may be recognised by the Council as being suitable bodies to undertake the provision of such services; and
  3. (c) regulating the conduct of the affairs of such bodies.

(9) An individual shall not describe himself or hold himself out as a licensed immigration adviser unless he holds a licence in force under this section.

(10) A body corporate shall not describe itself or hold itself out as a recognised body unless it is for the time being recognised under this section.

(11) A person who contravenes subsection (9) or (10) above shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months.

(12) A person who does not hold a licence in force under this section who offers, or purports to offer, advice to other persons on their rights under the Immigration Act 1971, the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 or this Act, in return for payment or other material reward or in the expectation of payment or other material reward, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to a fine or to both.

(13) The Lord Chancellor may make regulations governing the composition, method of appointment, powers, duties and conduct of its proceedings of the Council established under this section; and

  1. (a) the first regulations made under this section shall be made by statutory instrument which shall be laid before Parliament in draft and shall be subject to approval by resolution of each House; and
  2. (b) any subsequent regulations made under this section shall be made by statutory instrument and shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.

Mr. Straw

New clause 1 is intended to establish effective regulation of those who give advice on immigration matters, and to end the scandal of unscrupulous advisers who make their living by manufacturing bogus claims for settlement through false applications for asylum, marriage, study and employment.

In nearly every town and city containing large ethnic minority settlements, self-appointed immigration advisers are leeching a living from their clients and, indirectly, from the state. As there is currently no regulation, no one can know the size of the unofficial profit-making immigration advice sector, but I believe that it is large and growing. It is almost certainly among the principal causes of bogus asylum and other immigration claims. In my 17 years as Member of Parliament for Blackburn, which contains a large ethnic minority community, I cannot recall being presented with a bogus immigration case that has not involved an unscrupulous adviser. I am sad to say that, in some instances, that adviser or his or her principal has been legally qualified—a point to which I shall return later.

This is a serious scandal. The first question is whether it can be dealt with other than by statutory regulation. We believe that the answer is no, and I am glad to note from the record of the Committee stage that that view is widely shared on both sides of the House. In Committee, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva)—

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Where is he?

Mr. Straw

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not yet arrived. In Committee, he said: I do not believe that self-regulation will work. It works only when it is applied to genuine and legitimate advisers, who have the qualification to advise properly … Cowboys will not regulate themselves. If they did, they would go out of business. They are not qualified and their modus operandi is to encourage people to prolong the application process by going from one type of application to another. To introduce self-regulation in an area like this is like asking a fraudster who is intent on committing a crime, or a burglar who wants to rob someone's property, to self-regulate himself."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 8 February 1996; c. 604.] I entirely agree with that.

The question of the regulation of the immigration advisory sector raises issues of principle similar to those raised by the statutory regulation of the private security industry, which we debated last week.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that when I was involved in the Immigration Advisory Service—which is funded by the Government, as it has been over the past 25 years—I was shocked when clients came, before 1979, and told me that they had been to commercial agencies? Even for a letter to the Home Office on the most simple matter, £25 was charged—and that was before 1979. Does not that, with the examples that he has given, illustrate that it is wrong that such so-called agencies should exist to exploit people, rather as they do on the Indian subcontinent, who know no better and who should be advised to go to the Government-funded agency or to genuine solicitors?

Mr. Straw

I share my hon. Friend's concern and experience and pay tribute to the work that he did with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the Immigration Advisory Service. I know that his experience is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must speak through the microphone so that he is recorded. He is not being recorded because I cannot hear him myself.

Mr. Straw

Time after time, people come to us late in the day, perhaps when they are about to be deported, who have been ripped off by unauthorised, unregulated groups of so-called immigrant advisers. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) also referred to genuine solicitors because, as I will suggest later, there is a problem with some legally qualified people who operate such practices.

The issue raises matters of principle similar to those raised in last week's debate on the private security industry. I do not want in this debate, any more than in that one, to get involved in an ideological discussion about the role or extent of regulation.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

I bet the hon. Gentleman does not.

Mr. Straw

I hear the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), whom I welcome, saying, sotto voce, that she bets that I do not. She will recall that during the debate on the private security industry, the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) announced their general subscription to the principle of deregulation but said that it should not apply to the private security industry. I suspect that they would not wish it to apply to immigration advisers either.

The hon. and learned Member for Burton said: I am as deregulating a Conservative as anyone can be, but there is regulation and regulation: some regulation is necessary and some is not."—[Official Report, 13 February 1996; Vol. 271, c. 893. ] He went on to explain why regulation of the private security industry was necessary to deal with what he called the crooks who are running that industry.

The same applies to immigration advice. There are crooks, or people indulging in behaviour that is close to criminal, who provide bogus advice for a lot of money. I believe, as I hope that the Minister will acknowledge, that even the Home Office recognises that there is a problem. That is why it initiated discussions two years ago with the group that deals with immigration practitioners and the Law Society. I hope that she will be more forthcoming this afternoon than she was in Committee about what the Government intend to do about what is unquestionably a serious scandal.

If it is accepted that there has to be statutory regulation, the next question is how best it should be achieved. New clause 1 proposes the establishment of an immigration practitioners registration authority, under the supervision not of the Home Office but of the Lord Chancellor. Under our scheme, any person who is not described as a qualified person has to be registered with the authority to practise in the field. If they practise but are not so registered, they will commit a criminal offence. In sub-sections (8), (9) and (10) of new clause 1, power is given to the courts and others to secure the enforcement of the scheme.

Qualified persons who are exempt from the scheme are practising barristers and solicitors or advisory organisations, such as the Immigration Advisory Service—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North referred—or charities approved by the regulatory authority.

As I have made clear, the Lord Chancellor and not the Home Secretary would be the supervising Minister for the authority. That follows a standard arrangement for similar quasi-judicial bodies. It is better that they should be at arm's length from the Department that deals directly with the policy. The Lord Chancellor's Department has a lot of experience of administering such schemes and there is an exact parallel with the arrangements made for the appointment of adjudicators to immigration appeals tribunals.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth, whose name is attached to new clause 7, which is in this group, is not in his place. He moved an equivalent clause in Committee. The purpose of new clause 7 is identical to that of new clause 1, but there are some important practical differences. First, I remind the Minister that our proposal involves a much lighter touch in terms of regulation than that of the hon. Gentleman. Secondly, our proposal excludes directly barristers and solicitors from the scheme of regulation laid down in new clause 1.

The case for excluding practising lawyers is that they are already regulated by their own professional bodies—solicitors are regulated under statute. In making a case for their exclusion from regulation by the authority, it is not our intention that the entire legal profession should be given a clean bill of health from the charge of abuse in this area.

To return to the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North, I know of solicitors who have taken thousands of pounds from constituents to pursue wholly unwarranted cases, who at the very last minute, when it was far too late, sent the constituent to me to sort out the mess, charging them for a letter merely telling them the address of my advice surgery, and I am sure that that has happened to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Had the constituents come to me in the first instance, nine times out of 10 I would have had to tell them that I was sorry, but they had no right to stay in this country and that it would be in their best interest and that of their families to go back as quickly as possible. In saying so, one would have saved the constituent not only a lot of distress and worry but a large amount of money.

There is abuse of the green form scheme and an abuse whereby solicitors use non-qualified staff to operate unofficial advisory services under the front of a solicitor's firm. Those abuses need to be dealt with firmly by the Law Society and the Legal Aid Board. A full franchising scheme should be introduced for legal aid in such cases, including the use of the green form, so that publicly funded legal advice would be available only from franchised solicitors. Many solicitors from whom I have received letters not only abuse the system but show a surprising ignorance of immigration law and practice. A franchising system would sort that out. There has to be far more effective regulation by the Law Society of such solicitors' branch offices, which masquerade as such but are little different in character from the bogus, non-qualified consultancies.

New clause 1 is a sensible and practical proposal which would tackle abuse of the immigration rules, and asylum abuse in particular, at its root. We hope that it commends itself to the House.

Miss Widdecombe

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am sorry, but I did not realise that he was coming to the end of his speech. He has made a number of important points and I think that he will agree that the issue is not only whether people charge for fairly trivial services, but whether they are competent to advise in the first place. Can he help me to understand his proposal? Obviously, with lawyers there is a test of competence because they have all passed examinations and gained qualifications. What is a practitioner of immigration advice going to have to do to persuade anyone—regulatory or otherwise—that he or she is competent?

Mr. Straw

The Minister has made a generous assumption that lawyers who pass legal exams are qualified to advise on immigration law. For example, as a young barrister, the two areas in which I immediately practised were landlord and tenant law and family law—two areas in which I had never passed an exam. That is true of a great many young lawyers. Therefore, no assumptions should be made because people are formally qualified as solicitors or barristers or that, by virtue of that fact, they know anything at all, particularly about immigration law. I am unaware of Law Society or Bar Council exams that make compulsory a paper in immigration law. That is why there should be a franchising arrangement by the Law Society so that public funds are available only where people are properly qualified in this area.

The Minister asked me how the authority could be satisfied that other people in this area are competent. There would have to be a test of competence—there is no other way out of that. Some people gain competence as a result of long practice. For example, people who work in the Immigration Advisory Service, in the Refugee Legal Centre and in well-known and accepted charities may not be legally qualified but they may have built up immense expertise over the years. It would be easy for the authority that we propose to give such people a practising certificate. The authority that we propose may agree to a scheme with those accepted charities. There would have to be a system of qualification for other people, and I do not resile from that conclusion.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I support new clause 1. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) is not present in the House. In Committee he put forward a fundamentally good idea, which has given rise to this debate. However, I believe that his new clause 7 creates conflicts, complications and contradictions. The hon. Member for Blackburn is right: new clause 1 has a lighter regulatory touch and, therefore, should commend itself to the House.

Hon. Members will have dealt with immigration cases over the years and will have horror stories to tell, so I do not think it is necessary to detail such cases. All hon. Members are aware that bogus and fraudulent advisers have taken money from people and abused their position. The issue is not so much about qualifications and passing exams, but more about the bona fides of the people who are involved in this work.

New clause 1 is a good stab at trying to deal with this problem. It is illustrative of one of the difficulties that arose during Second Reading and Committee stage. These are sensitive questions, they are often controversial and they often raise highly charged issues. In my view, they are questions that are far better settled as a result of consensus and as a result of hon. Members trying to come to a commonly agreed conclusion.

We have missed a unique opportunity to use the special procedures that can be used when debating bills by not having the chance to call witnesses and to draw evidence and to go into that in some detail in Committee. If we had done that, we would have incorporated the sort of ideas put forward in Committee without any controversy whatsoever—instead, it was turned into yet another football. It is a classic example of legislation that should have been examined coolly, calmly and dispassionately. If it had been, new clauses such as these would have presented themselves, would have been scrutinised and would have been incorporated without controversy.

New clause 1 creates a registration system and a new authority under the supervision of the Lord Chancellor. This is long overdue. I draw the attention of hon. Members to the judgment given by Mr. Justice Stephen Sedley in the High Court in ex parte motion Miranda on 31 March 1995. He said: It would be of advantage to everybody who gets involved in these cases in this court if one day there were some such control over those who are able to give advice, in order to attempt to ensure that the sort of problem that this court is looking at does not continue to occur. That day has arrived and we have the opportunity in the context of the legislation to do something about the issue that Mr. Justice Stephen Sedley highlighted in the High Court.

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It is absurd to suggest that it is impossible to legislate on the subject. We can look at overseas examples to see how we could proceed. Australia set up a migration agents registration service in 1992. It has three specific objectives, most of which are incorporated in new clause 1. It was successfully operated in Australia and its three objectives were: to deter professional misconduct by people working as migration agents and immigration advisers; secondly, to improve the standards of professional conduct and quality of service in the industry; thirdly, to provide a way of dealing with complaints against a particular agent. The Australian service highlighted those objectives—dealing with bona fides, setting up a regulatory authority and monitoring the work of people engaged in giving advice to immigrants. The Australians have successfully operated that system.

In this country, the Law Society has a view on the subject. Karen Mackay, who is the secretary of the immigration law sub-committee, says that the society has been concerned for a number of years about the problem of bogus immigration advisers. She said: We believe that the Government needs to take action to regulate the activities of fraudulent advisers who prey on vulnerable immigration clients. The Society has discussed this issue with the Home Office, and has pointed out that we have powers only to regulate solicitors, and can do nothing to regulate non solicitor advisers. The new clauses address the issue head on and are worthy of support.

Lack of control, and the cost of bogus applications and appeals for legal aid on judicial review, lead to enormous costs, which often have to be met by the taxpayer. The new clause should commend itself to the House on the ground of obtaining value for money. In addition, the existence of frightened asylum seekers means that justice requires that such measures should be taken. Many immigrants, frightened at the possibility of having to return to a country where persecution and human rights abuses are rife, will inevitably do all in their power to avoid deportation. To obtain what they assume to be good advice, they will go to anyone who says that he or she is an expert. Many of them will part with their meagre life savings to protect themselves and their families. The persecuted then become doubly exploited as they are ripped off by fraudsters and tricksters, some of whom have no qualifications and, even worse, some of whom have extremely tarnished track records.

The new clause tackles such problems. It ensures that the sort of protection that is already available for registered conveyors is also available for immigrants. The new clause will ensure that bad advice that is given as a result of lack of control will no longer be given.

On that basis, I hope that the new clauses commend themselves to the House.

Mr. Winnick

I must first apologise to you, Madam Speaker, and to the House. As well as an important meeting with the Select Committee on Procedure, I also have an appointment on parliamentary business. I hope that you, Madam Speaker, other occupants of the Chair and the two Front-Bench teams will accept my apologies if I am not present for the winding-up speeches.

The new clause is important. It is strange that such regulations have not been introduced before, as they have been needed for a long time. Often, people seeking advice are unfamiliar with any form of legal practice. They are encouraged by agencies such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to make applications that in many cases serve no purpose.

A genuine agency such as the Immigration Advisory Service, or a solicitor or a Member of Parliament, would explain why, in many cases, an application would serve no purpose. Let us take the examples of someone who is in the country genuinely as a visitor and wants to extend his stay, or someone who wants to extend the stay of a close relative who is in the country on a temporary basis. I am sure that I speak for most hon. Members when I say that, when approached by a constituent, a Member of Parliament would explain that an application may be made for an extension but that, regardless of whether that is granted, it may be taken into consideration if the person wants to visit the United Kingdom again. We would explain the options, as would a genuine solicitor or the Immigration Advisory Service.

A commercial organisation, which has no other purpose than to make as much money as possible, would not explain that. It would simply say, "We shall write a letter on your behalf to the Home Office," without explaining some of the disadvantages. From its commercial point of view, there is no reason why it should do so. In so doing, it can cause many difficulties.

Let us suppose that an appeal has gone to an adjudicator and the adjudicator has decided, on hearing oral evidence. to turn that appeal down. There is a further appeal, but only on points of law to the immigration appeal tribunal. Anyone who is familiar with immigration law knows that there are rarely sufficient points of law to take the appeal further. We would advise that there is no purpose in appealing and that it would be pointless to appeal to the immigration appeal tribunal.

Many organisations, however, which are only in the business of making money and have no genuine concern for people's plight, give different advice. They say, "We shall lodge an appeal on your behalf," and name a sum—not always, but often, exorbitant—and the person knows no better. He believes that it is perfectly in order. It is legally in order, but no purpose is served.

An important distinction should be made in immigration law—and no doubt in other parts of law—between sound advice, based on experience, and the type of advice that is often bad and counter-productive. That is why it is necessary to consider closely the organisation that sets itself up and states on a plaque outside the door, "We will write to the Home Office on any matter concerning immigration, passport applications, extending visitors' stay" and so on. The sums involved are exorbitant.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Can the hon. Gentleman give the House an idea of the fees charged in those instances by people masquerading as advisers? Does he have any proof of those fees, or is what he says based on anecdote?

Mr. Winnick

Not entirely. If the hon. Gentleman had been present earlier when my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn spoke, he would have heard me say that when I was involved in a genuine agency funded by the Government, we were told by some clients that a letter to the Home Office would cost £25. That was before 1979; there has been a fair amount of inflation since then. That was the charge to make a simple request of the Home Office—nothing complicated. No doubt, some agencies charged more even then.

Some of those organisations—if they can be described as such—are only in the business of making as much profit as possible and are not concerned with giving genuine advice. In all fairness, some are genuine, but others would charge as much as possible. That is why they are linked with some agents who operate on the Indian sub-continent. Hon. Members who have heard stories from constituents about relatives or close friends who have received advice from agents on the Indian sub-continent—many of whom operate outside immigration offices in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan—will know that they give bad advice. Those agents are notorious, as are those operating in the United Kingdom—although perhaps not to the same extent.

Some agencies have names that are similar to that of the genuine agency—the Immigration Advisory Service—which has been referred to on several occasions. Such agencies tend to give the impression that they are an official agency. They will not admit to that device and, if pressed, I am sure that they would deny it. Nevertheless, they give the impression that they have much the same powers as the official Government-funded agency. That is extremely regrettable.

I find it difficult to understand why the Government should resist new clause 1. Any exploitation is undesirable, and more so when people, who are unfamiliar with our law and practices, are ripped off in the way described. There is a strong case for accepting new clause 1. There are some complications, but when the Minister pressed my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn about how one would decide who is a properly qualified agent, my hon. Friend replied accordingly. I am sure that he would be the first to acknowledge that certain complications must be resolved; it is not easy to decide who should or should not be qualified.

If the Government accept the new clause—it will be interesting to see the attitude adopted by the Minister in replying to the debate—at least there will be some form of much-needed protection in law. Such protection was needed before 1979 and it is even more important now. People are being exploited in a disgraceful manner, so I hope that the amendment will be accepted. If those responsible for drafting legislation believe that there are weaknesses in the wording of new clause 1, I am sure that those weaknesses will be rectified accordingly.

Mr. Couchman

I should like to press the Opposition on the point that my hon. Friend the Minister made about new clause 1 during her brief intervention. It seems to me that a parallel has been drawn with licensed conveyancers. The conveyancing of property is a well-recognised part of the law and is undertaken by all solicitors. The process of conveyancing is well known: certain things must and must not be done. Therefore, we can set an industry standard.

I should like to know precisely what the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has in mind when he suggests that agents should have some form of qualification. I am sure that all hon. Members would like to see the agency racket scotched once and for all: we could certainly do without those who are at present profiting from racketeering in that business.

Mr. Straw

I do not think that we need to make heavy weather of the issue. Someone could be identified as being qualified through a mixture of accreditation and formal qualifications. I said in answer to the Minister that, as in the case of existing well-established charities which operate in London and elsewhere, it would be quite straightforward to introduce an accreditation system. If necessary, it could be organised by an outside body which would accredit those people. Perhaps some commercial organisations of good standing could accredit long-established practitioners. As to new entrants, I accept that there should be a qualification system which could be run by one of the well-known accrediting bodies. I shall anticipate the hon. Gentleman and raise the issue of money: it seems to me that such a scheme would have to be self-regulating because it is in the interests of those who are seeking accreditation.

4.15 pm
Mr. Couchman

The new clause mentions giving such advice for reward. Presumably, registered charities do not charge for their services. When those seeking my help in immigration cases approach my advice bureaux, frequently they are accompanied by a member of the local mosque or other religious organisation, who acts as their interpreter and advocate. What would be the position of such a person? One does not know whether money changes hands in those cases. Presumably, a small donation is made to the religious organisation. I have no way of knowing that. Would those people automatically find accreditation? They are certainly not experts.

Finally, I am worried by the automatic assumption that any practising lawyer should be considered an expert in these matters. On several occasions, I regaled the Committee with the case of an Albanian who, as a last resort, was advised to try to stay here by applying for political asylum. He had been advised by a Greek friend, but his solicitor accepted instructions and made the application. Although that application for asylum has now been withdrawn, it was manifestly bogus and it seemed to me that the solicitor should not have been prepared to take instructions that were obviously outside our laws on asylum. I would be interested to hear the view of the hon. Member for Blackburn on that point.

Mr. Vaz

I shall not repeat what other Members have said, but I should like to raise three new points that are important to the new clause. I fully associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). As he has been in the House much longer than I have, he will know that, during the passage of every immigration Bill, Members have drawn attention to racketeering immigration advisers. We should have the opportunity to deal with the issue once and for all.

It should be remembered that the increase in immigration advisers in the past few years is a direct result of Government policy. The complicated legislation that has been introduced and the fact that the political atmosphere surrounding every immigration Bill has created fear has led many people to seek advice, and they are ripped off in the process. I cannot think of a single political asylum case that I have dealt with in the past nine years in which the person who comes to me has not consulted an immigration adviser. Frankly, such advisers usually cock the matter up, and nothing can be done to address the case properly.

People come to see Members of Parliament. We write to Ministers who write back, not to excuse the actions of the person who came to see us, but to blame the immigration adviser. That does not prevent Ministers from making catastrophic decisions in regard to our constituents.

I shall give the House one current example. Mr. Sumra and his wife Mrs. Kasan, who live in my constituency, have been in the country since 1991. They are waiting at their home for an immigration officer to call and remove them from the country. We have had lengthy correspondence with Ministers and the last letter I received was dated 26 October 1994. Mr. Sumra and his wife have four children and their last child was born three months ago. That child was born here and should be regarded as British; however, they are being told that they have to go. Their case became complicated because they initially consulted immigration advisers, who gave them the wrong advice and ensured that they made the wrong applications and, as a result, four years later, they are now at risk. We must resolve such terrible situations.

I refer the House to the role of Ministers in cases raised by hon. Members, because it is important to regulate the activities of immigration advisers. I have been writing to Ministers since I first entered the House, and I have always enjoyed a decent relationship with Immigration Ministers—despite the fact that they always say no when I write asking them to act beneficially on behalf of my constituents. That was the case until I received a letter dated 8 February from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, telling me of a change in the practice of informing Members of Parliament about the progress of immigration cases. Ministers are no longer obliged to inform us of the outcome of cases such as those that may have come to us via immigration advisers. Instead, a case goes to the immigration and nationality department, which informs the constituent. Then it is up to the constituent to inform the Member of Parliament. It is exactly at that point that constituents go to see immigration advisers.

I hold two surgeries once a fortnight. One cannot deal with immigration or deportation cases over a pager or mobile phone. At some stage, one must see the constituent, for example to discuss an urgent letter from the IND. If Ministers renege on their responsibility to the House, to inform hon. Members of the progress of cases, that will create even more serious considerations. More of our constituents will be forced to approach advisers and pay enormous amounts of money to obtain information that they ought to get free of charge from their Members of Parliament. It costs us nothing to write to the Minister for a response, whereas the public are charged £25 or more by an immigration adviser.

The case to which I referred came to me via an immigration consultant, three firms of solicitors, then a fourth firm of solicitors in Leicester, which was acting perfectly properly in urging me to telephone Castle Donington, which in turn urged me to contact the Minister's private office. When I did so, I could not talk to the hon. Gentleman because he was in the House. The complications are made worse by the Government's actions.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

The change to which my hon. Friend referred was made about 12 months ago, when Ministers said that they would no longer undertake to inform hon. Members of the outcome of applications. Does my hon. Friend agree that a major safeguard against abuse would be the simple practice of the Home Office copying all correspondence not only to the applicant's representative but directly to the applicant? That would be the simplest way of overcoming the problems that we are discussing.

Mr. Vaz

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The matter is further complicated for constituents who do not read or speak English. The Minister dealt recently with the case of a lady who arrived in this country four years ago and married a British citizen. The marriage broke down and the couple divorced. Subsequently, she fell in love with and married another British citizen, and they have a child aged six months. That lady still does not speak or read English, and the IND continues to communicate directly with her. We must make sure that the department acts in a consumer-friendly and proper way. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn is raising that matter with the Home Secretary on my behalf and that of other hon. Members.

There would be no need for immigration advisers if the IND were much more responsive to the needs of our constituents and was prepared to advise them on the law. People should be told the facts about changes in legislation. Instead, rather unhelpfully, when constituents ring up they are told by the IND to go to see a legal adviser or, foolishly, they are referred to Members of Parliament like me, who then chastise them for so doing. The IND should give helpful advice and facts about the law to everyone who needs them.

I am worried about the number of former immigration officers who set up in practice as immigration counsellors and advisers. They obviously know what is happening in the Home Office because they used to work in it. They know the personnel there. I recently saw a huge advertisement in the tube—it is so big that it appears that my hon. Friends the Members for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and for Blackburn have seen it too—which looked for all the world like an official notice from the immigration department. People would naturally think that it came from the IND—indeed, it even includes that name somewhere under the heading in italics.

What guidelines are there to ensure that former Home Office immigration officers who become advisers follow certain procedures? It might be useless asking the Government to do anything about this, given that Ministers on leaving their posts go off to become directors of companies that they have privatised, but I must ask the Government about the guidance. People should not be allowed to hold themselves up as experts merely on the basis that they used to work for the Home Office.

I support the new clause. I hope that the Minister will recognise the issue as a genuine one that has come up often before, and that the right action will be taken to implement what we suggest.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) mentioned the large advertisement at Heathrow underground station. It is set out in a way that gives the impression that some sort of Government body is behind it. It goes on to provide a list of services that are all provided free by Members of Parliament. The final words of the advertisement claim that "success is certain". That is an outrageous claim; we all know how uncertain success really is and how often our most determined efforts fail to help people with immigration and asylum problems.

Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham)

Given that these utterly fraudulent advertisements are appearing at Heathrow, is it not ironic that the British Airports Authority should recently have decided that bona fide immigration legal advice organisations may not put up notices at airports advising people of the necessity to register their asylum claims immediately or face losing benefits and other rights? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should insist that the BAA allows such notices to be put up?

Mrs. Fyfe

That is a good point. I am surprised that the BAA should have done that. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will take up the matter with local representatives of the BAA, to persuade them to change their minds. Perhaps the Government should make them change their minds, for the service is certainly needed.

I believe that the Government should take firm action to counter misleading advertising of the kind that we have been describing. What advice in writing is given to people on arrival in Britain—people who may find themselves in difficulties? Are they given a note printed in a variety of languages, telling them where they can go for free advice?

Is there a list of bodies that are recognised as competent and well informed on such matters? It would be interesting to know whether any such advice is given. I do not remember the subject coming up in Committee, but we should not continue tonight without knowing whether the Government will quibble about the meaning of regulations and competence.

It is incumbent on the Government to say what they are willing to do to protect people from being ripped off or losing their chance to appeal on time because of incompetent conduct by someone who might just be there to rake in the cash and is not concerned about providing a competent service.

Problems can also arise from advice given by somebody who is trying to do their best, but who simply is not appropriately qualified or experienced to handle the task. In one case in my constituency, someone lost the right to appeal because a registered letter posted to his solicitor's office was apparently not received. There are doubts about whether someone signed for that letter, and, if so, how it was lost, but my constituent has lost out. It is not his fault that the solicitor cannot run his office competently—if the letter was received there, which has still to be decided.

I hope that we will not continue further tonight without discovering precisely what protection the Government will give to people in such desperate circumstances.

4.30 pm
Miss Widdecombe

This has been an important debate. I congratulate—to a limited extent—the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and, more particularly, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva), who led so magnificently on the issue in Committee. By raising the issue in Committee, ahead of the official Opposition, he drew attention to a major problem, which the Opposition have now been only too delighted to recognise for themselves.

The debate has thrown up some serious issues. Hon. Members on both sides of the House share the perception of the problem. We will, I am afraid, disagree about the solution, but there is a genuine shared perception of the problem.

It is obviously undesirable that people who are vulnerable and not competent in the ways of this country can be ruthlessly exploited. People in that situation are sometimes given not only incompetent advice, but advice that can be highly counter-productive to an otherwise perfectly straightforward procedure and claim. I wish to acknowledge that problem, because the Government share the concerns about those practices. We must ensure, however, that we have found the best way to address the issue.

Although I fully sympathise with the claim that somebody who is vulnerable, muddled and bewildered can be led into making untrue statements, nevertheless we must proclaim the simple message that honesty—which individuals should exhibit anyway—in immigration and asylum cases is absolutely the best policy.

Mr. Straw

I entirely share the Minister's view on that point, but does she accept that in many cases—not all of them, I agree—the issue is not honesty or the lack of it, but ignorance of law? The advisers provide a bogus interpretation of the law, and the potential immigrant cannot be expected to know what the law is.

Miss Widdecombe

I understand that. My point related to cases in which immigrants are advised to claim, not on an interpretation of the law, but on a completely false basis as students or spouses.

There is a simple message for the immigrant community, which is that the best policy for those applying for extensions or renewal is straight honesty with us.

Mr. Vaz

I do not think that there is anything between us, given what the Minister has said so far. Will she give a commitment, however, that, when Ministers examine cases that have been raised by hon. Members, in which constituents have been wrongly advised by immigration practitioners who have acted irresponsibly, Ministers will not prejudice such cases because of the wrong advice that individuals have received?

Miss Widdecombe

If the hon. Gentleman reflects, I am sure that he will realise that I cannot give a blanket exemption for any false statements made, or any approach to the Home Office that is wrongly constructed, merely because an immigration adviser was involved. If the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member has especially difficult cases that they wish to draw to Ministers' attention, I am sure that Ministers will examine them, with a view to the individual and to evidence of the extent of the problem, which is one of the stumbling blocks.

Those who are seeking immigration advice already have a number of outlets to which they can turn. They can go to law centres, citizens advice bureaux, the Refugee Council, refugee legal centres, the Immigration Advisory Service, reputable solicitors and Members. These outlets give reputable and, I hope, nearly always competent help to those seeking their advice.

The second message that needs to go out is that it is not necessary to consult someone round the corner. There are many places where individuals can go to get reputable help, even if that help is only to steer them in the direction of further reputable help, which I consider to be important. It may sound simple to send out messages about honesty and seeking reputable help, but it is necessary that the points are made.

The main thrust of the new clause—

Mrs. Fyfe

A variety of advice is available, but is someone who arrives at a port of entry given that information in several languages so that he might understand what is available, or is he expected to understand English?

Miss Widdecombe

The hon. Lady raised that matter this afternoon, as she did in Committee. We give advice to entrants on arrival. I do not mean that we would give detailed advice in a particular case. We give general advice on the help that is available. We have a number of information leaflets available to those who make applications to remain in this country. They include asylum seekers, but the leaflets are not exclusive to them.

Information is available in a number of languages. It is important that people should at least be told where they can go to obtain reasonable advice.

Mr. Madden

Will the Minister at least consider the suggestion that I made during the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz)—that the Home Office might adopt a procedure whereby all communications are sent both to the applicant and to his or her representative, and not only to the representative? It would be a simple procedure that would not cost the earth. It would help to minimise the damage that might be done by some unscrupulous advisers who do not act upon communications or respond to them, often leaving applicants in serious difficulties.

Miss Widdecombe

I understand the difficulty that the hon. Gentleman has identified. However, I think that the procedure he mentioned would be somewhat more complicated and expensive than he suggests. I shall, however, undertake to write to him with the rationale for our not going down that route, so that he will at least have full information as to why we do not think that it is feasible.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)


Miss Widdecombe

I hope that I will eventually be able to get to the new clause.

Mr. Gerrard

I thank the Minister for giving way, because this is an important point. Will the Minister consider, if not copying all correspondence to the applicant as well as the adviser, ensuring that at least the absolutely vital documents, such as notices of appeal, are sent to the applicant as well as to the adviser? I certainly—like, I am sure, other hon. Members—have come across cases in which people have lost rights of appeal simply because an adviser never acted on a notice. If the applicant had at least those essential documents, that problem might be avoided.

Miss Widdecombe

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but one has to consider normal practice. If one is dealing with a normal legal practice, for example, the normal practice is to send documents that relate to a case to the legal practitioner. I have already told the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) that I will set out the rationale for our position, and I will ensure that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) receives a copy. We can manage that duplication on this occasion.

Mr. Vaz

I am sorry to prolong this point, but does the Minister accept that, when a Member of Parliament writes to a Minister to makes representations on a case, and the letter is sent on by the Minister to the immigration and nationality department, it is absolutely vital that that hon. Member should be informed of the outcome of the case? If not, we are left to track cases with our very limited resources.

I have an on-going case load of about 2,000 immigration cases, and it is simply not possible to track each one of them, whereas the IND will have a file and will know when an hon. Member has written about a case. It would be ever so easy to inform that hon. Member of the case's outcome.

Miss Widdecombe

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that, although I cannot boast a case load of 2,000, as a constituency Member of Parliament I also deal with immigration cases. My practice is very simple: I ask the constituent to let me know as soon as there is any development, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. That is how I operate.

Mr. Vaz


Miss Widdecombe

Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman again, and I shall do so, I should like to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Bradford, West, which was whether we could simply duplicate the correspondence to representatives and to applicants.

If an applicant asks for it, he can, of course, have a copy. We restrict our communications to the applicant's representative, because he has appointed the representative to act on his behalf. Therefore, to all intents and purposes, the representative is the applicant—in the legal sense of word.

Mr. Straw


Miss Widdecombe

I now have a queue. I shall first give way to the hon. Member for Blackburn.

Mr. Straw

I understand the point that the Minister is making, but will she acknowledge that the Inland Revenue's practice, for example, is quite different, in that, partly to protect itself—I think that this would be a protection for the Home Office as well—it has a standing rule by which it copies the notice to the taxpayer whenever it writes to a taxpayer's adviser?

Miss Widdecombe

I acknowledge the Inland Revenue's practice, but the Home Office's practice is under discussion. I have said—I do not think that I can improve on it—that I will set out our rationale in writing. I shall take one more point from the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), and then leave this point and proceed with the debate.

Mr. Vaz

I think that the Minister acknowledges that these matters are very serious and important.

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Vaz

If a constituent receives a notice saying that he is about to be deported, the difficulty in getting in touch with an hon. Member who is in the Chamber—or for an hon. Member from a constituency outside London to see his constituent—to take fresh representations, and to pass those on to the private office and from the private office to Castle Donington, for example, is a long and complicated route.

In his letter of 8 February, which caused me concern, the junior Minister responsible for immigration stated that it is normal practice not to write to tell me what is happening after I have raised a case with him. That has never been the practice of Ministers charged with immigration matters. I always received a response from his predecessors, as far back as the right hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), when he was Minister of State, Home Office. They always kept Members of Parliament informed when we raised cases with them. It has never been the case that we have not been told of the outcome.

4.45 pm
Miss Widdecombe

At the risk of becoming repetitive, which I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would not approve, I have said that we will communicate with hon. Members who have raised points on this issue, explaining the full rationale as to why we implement the practices that we implement and have implemented for some time.

I now come to the essence of new clause 1, much of which is the same as new clause 7. The distinction between the two is that, in the Opposition's amendment, an authority would be created, whereas, in the amendment my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth, a council would be set up to distribute licences.

We had a full discussion in Committee about licensing immigration practitioners, and I explained then that we shared many of the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth. Indeed, I was joined in that concern by my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) and for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman). I am delighted to see them here today.

We made it clear that a statutory scheme, such as that envisaged by the Opposition, would not necessarily be the best option, nor did the scale of the problem merit a response based on a statutory scheme. I pressed just one small example with the hon. Member for Blackburn about tests of competence, and he acknowledged absolutely, as did the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), that it would have to be worked through and that it was not entirely straightforward.

The setting up of bodies—examining bodies, qualifying bodies and the rest—is quite a complex procedure. We are not convinced, for example, that it could be done without expense, at least not at start-up, and at the moment the Bill has no money resolution attached, so it would give us a major problem.

Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is difficult to quantify the extent of the problem, because sometimes the person has gone away, has left the country, has not arrived in the country, or has been deported and has no recourse to complain negligence or tort because he or she does not know how or where to go to complain, or is not here?

Miss Widdecombe

I acknowledge that that is one of the complications. A further complication is that much of the information we have is anecdotal rather than empirical and fully worked out. We need to examine the scale of the problem. We also need to examine what protection already exists.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) raised a point about a poster that advertised success. I must point out the obvious, that there are controls on misleading claims in advertising, and it should be possible for anyone who is misled in such a way to seek redress under that part of the law. We also have a clear law on trade descriptions, and a number of other perfectly reasonable devices are in place to try to control such activities. That needs further examination.

Mr. Alton

It seems to me that the Minister is saying that, if the empirical evidence can be provided, at least the Home Office might have an open mind. I want to be clear whether that is really what she is saying. Will she ask Mr. Justice Sedley, to whom I referred, to give evidence to the Home Office on his recommendation, and undertake to look at the Australian scheme, which functions perfectly properly?

Miss Widdecombe

If only the hon. Gentleman were patient, he would hear what I am going to say. Although it may not meet his requirements precisely, I hope that it will go some way towards doing so.

Along with the Law Society and the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, we have already been considering the best solution. As the hon. Member for Blackburn acknowledged, the Lord Chancellor's Department also has an interest in the matter, not least because of the supervisory role envisaged in both the Opposition's and my hon. Friend's new clauses. The discussions that we have had so far have not suggested a clear way forward, which is why I must resist the new clauses.

The Law Society and the ILPA have given us a good deal of advice, for which I am grateful; but they too are still considering the issues in detail. They consider those issues difficult and complicated, in terms of both statutory regulation and any self-regulation, which is the option that we tried to explore with them. They have communicated their current views, and the extent to which they might be able to contribute to a solution. The Law Society is still discussing the matter; the ILPA may be able to offer some limited assistance, but it has said that it would not be able to run a full-blown self-regulation scheme, for instance.

Neither body—both are entirely independent of Government—has reached a clear view, although, as I have said, I am grateful to them for giving the matter urgent consideration. For the time being, therefore, we cannot be convinced that the way forward lies either directly in a statutory scheme, as proposed by the new clauses, or in self-regulation; but we are still discussing the matter with interested parties.

Mr. Deva

I hope that my hon. Friend will press on. I think that she is now aware of the magnitude of the problem, and the concern that is felt not only by hon. Members on both sides of the House but by ordinary people—largely members of ethnic minorities—who feel that they are or their relatives have been ripped off. I am glad that my hon. Friend has embarked on discussions with various bodies.

Miss Widdecombe

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I give him an undertaking that we shall continue to consider the problem—whose existence I acknowledge, although I cannot yet acknowledge its extent, because that is not yet clear. We shall go on discussing it with interested parties, and we shall try to arrive at a balanced and proportionate solution. On that basis, however, I must urge the House to resist the new clause.

Mr. Straw

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) raised an important matter that is related the issue of advice: the right of hon. Members to receive copies of correspondence. I listened carefully to what the Minister said; I hope that she will take up the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, which I followed up with a letter to the Home Secretary.

I believe that the current arrangements, under which hon. Members do not automatically receive copies of the result or disposal of a case that they initially raised, lead to more paperwork for the Home Office. In my experience, the constituent will come back, and I will have no knowledge of how the case involved has been disposed of. Constituents often do not have a copy of the letter that they have received—although they may give an imaginative interpretation of the letter they think they received. I end up having to write a further letter to the Home Office to get the reply, whereas, if I had had it in the first place, it could all have been resolved. It is a question not only of the rights of the House but of good administration.

When I raised the example of the Inland Revenue, the Minister said that she was speaking of the Home Office. I know that the Home Office regards itself as a part of the British constitution separate from other Departments, but it sometimes helps if one Department learns from the experience of another. I urge that on her.

Although the Minister has been uncharacteristically reasonable, at least in tone, I did not consider her answers satisfactory.

Miss Widdecombe

The hon. Gentleman surprises me.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Lady says that I surprise her. The reason for that—

Miss Widdecombe

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

Of course I give way to the hon. Lady.

Miss Widdecombe

I have undertaken to write to the hon. Gentleman about our practice, and I will do so. We receive approximately 10,000 letters from Members of Parliament on immigration cases. Some cases take a considerable amount of time to resolve, go through various stages and generate an enormous volume of correspondence. We must consider the feasibility of duplicating that.

I must add one thing, because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I never like to mislead the House. When, in response to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe), I discussed the advice that we give people arriving in this country, I should, of course, have said—this is technical, but I want to correct it, anyway—that the advice we offer is to applicants, not to all entrants.

Mr. Straw

I am sure that we are grateful for that clarification. We take note that the hon. Lady is learning the dangers of even inadvertently misleading the House.

When I said that the hon. Lady's answer was unsatisfactory, I was trying to be economical with my language. I meant that her responses both to the discrete but important point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East and to the general principle raised by the new clause were unsatisfactory. She has admitted that there is a problem, but denied it an effective solution. I regret that she has done that.

We have accepted, as is inherent in any such scheme, that important administrative details must be worked through. The hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) raised some points of that sort.

We are not suggesting that genuine family friends should be prohibited from speaking on behalf of their friends. In the real word, it would not be possible to prohibit that. As with every scheme of statutory regulation—indeed, with the whole criminal law—one cannot deal with every conceivable mischief. However, the fact that one cannot do everything does not mean that one should do nothing. A statutory scheme would be a significant advance on what exists.

The Minister said that she was not aware of the scale of the problem. That is why I am deeply unhappy about her response. Any number of staff in the immigration and nationality department could rapidly give her a sense of it, but it is not one capable of scientific measurement. It would be difficult to measure, because such people, by definition, are not subject to regulation. One would not know where to start. We all know that it is a major problem.

Mr. Deva

indicated assent.

Mr. Straw

I am glad to see the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) nodding. The Home Office also knows it, because it is caused immense additional paperwork and cost by the way in which unscrupulous advisers operate.

The Minister raised the position of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the Law Society. They are still working through their ideas, but it is my understanding that both bodies support our scheme.

I would have much preferred the Minister to say that she recognised the problem, and that the broad outline of the scheme that we propose in new clause 1 marks out the solution that ought to be followed, but that more work should be done and, therefore, Ministers would invite us to withdraw it and would table appropriate, properly drafted amendments in Committee in the other place.

Although the Minister says that she will now give her urgent attention to the matter, frankly, I do not believe that she has given it sufficient urgent attention to date. It is two years since the discussions with the ILPA and the Law Society began. For that reason—we do not want to detain the House with a Division—we shall not seek to withdraw the new clause.

Question put and negatived.

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