HC Deb 12 July 2004 vol 423 cc1122-3
16. Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)

What action has been taken to deal with foreign nationals working illegally in the Morecambe Bay cockle beds. [183099]

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne)

The immigration service is working closely with both Cumbria and Lancashire police forces to tackle immigration offences arising from the presence of foreign national cockle pickers in the region. That work includes sharing intelligence, planning disruption strategy and responding to calls for assistance. The immigration service participates in Department for Work and Pensions-led multi-agency enforcement work, and is co-operating in the establishment of a joint enforcement group proposed by the north-west sea fisheries committee. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of 13 visits in the 50-day period between 24 March and 12 May to contact or identify illegal workers, disrupt illegal activity and gather intelligence.

Geraldine Smith

I thank the Minister for that response. I am sure that he is aware that there is widespread public concern about the large numbers of Chinese, suspected illegal, immigrants still working in dangerous conditions on Morecambe bay. Does he accept that there is still a public perception that the Government are turning a blind eye to this problem? That is probably because when Chinese people are picked up and identified as illegal immigrants, they are simply documented and released back into community, where they are once again vulnerable to exploitation. Can he tell me what his Department intends to do to remedy this unsatisfactory situation?

Mr. Browne

I know that my hon. Friend, who has been consistent and persistent in relation to this issue, as she has a particular constituency interest in it, is fully aware of the extent of the work being done not merely by the police but by the immigration service, the DWP and others in this regard. I rely on her to a degree, as she has the ear of her constituents, to provide assurance that the information that she has been given, often confidentially, proves to be correct in terms of activity in her area. She identifies a significant problem—returning illegal immigrants to China is difficult, as those immigrants tend not to co-operate with the Chinese Government's redocumentation procedures. That issue is at the forefront of our ongoing discussions with the Chinese Government on tackling immigration. We have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with China to take forward our co-operation on illegal immigration, which will provide a framework for progress on increasing removals. In the meantime, we stand ready to continue to assist any Chinese nationals who wish to return voluntarily.