§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]
§ 6 pm
§ Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)
In this debate I intend to confine my remarks to an examination of written information that I have received from the Home Office relating to enforcement action by the immigration service in the Morecambe bay area, which I believe to be inaccurate and misleading, and to the subsequent statements made by Government spokespersons to the media that that information was true.
With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall begin by quoting relevant passages of the correspondence between the Home Office and myself, and go on to identify the parts that I believe to be inaccurate and misleading. I shall then give details of the events that did occur in Morecambe. Finally, I shall sum up and invite the Minister to answer the points that I have raised.
I wrote to the Minister of State at the Home Office informing her of a report that I had received from one of my constituents, who is a fisherwoman. My constituent contacted me after being involved in a Department for Work and Pensions and police raid on Pilling sands on 19 June last year. She apprised me of her concerns about the exploitation and danger faced by a large number of people of Asian origin. She told me that the police and the DWP had been unable to interview any of those people because they did not speak English and did not have an interpreter with them. She said that she had been told that despite making efforts over a number of weeks, the police had been unable to get the immigration service to participate in the raid.
I subsequently received a reply dated 8 August 2003 from a junior Home Office Minister that included the following paragraphs:You have commented that the circumstances point to a large number of illegal immigrants at work that day and you say that Lancashire Constabulary and local DWP agents had planned this operation but apparently had been unable to get co-operation from the Immigration authorities.I can confirm that the Immigration Service staff were aware of this operation. The DWP and the Police had contacted our office in Liverpool and discussed a matter with them.Let me begin by saying that several of the issues your constituent has raised, namely the evasion of tax on national insurance, rates of pay and the use of over laden boats are not matters over which the Immigration Service has any jurisdiction. These are matters for other agencies and those agencies do not need the Immigration Service present in order to conduct an investigation.These agencies are able to provide their own interpreters and interview them using their own powers.The issue over which the Immigration Service does have jurisdiction is that of illegal immigrants I can tell you that similar exercises to this have been carried out in Morecambe Bay and other similar areas in the past, which the Immigration Service have participated in.The Minister goes on to explain in some detail the particular difficulties in dealing with Chinese illegal immigrants, and states:
Accordingly local managers must decide which area of work is likely to be most productive and allocate resources accordingly. For these reasons, rather than any unwillingness to tackle illegal 1140 immigration or co-operate with the DWP and police, it was decided that it would not be appropriate in this particular operation.After the recent tragedy in Morecambe bay, the full contents of both of those letters became public knowledge, and there was widespread media interest in the fact that the immigration service had chosen not to participate in the Pilling sands operation. The Government were widely reported as saying that Pilling sands was an isolated case and that the immigration service had been involved in a number of similar operations in Morecambe bay and elsewhere, both before and since the incident.
When I was asked by a journalist to comment on that statement, I said that I had no knowledge of any recent operations taking place in Morecambe bay and that I would seek to obtain the details of any such operations as soon as possible. On 12 February, I met the Minister at the Home Office and raised the matter with her. Bearing in mind the Government's public position on the subject, I was rather surprised that neither she nor her officials had any information readily to hand. She did, however, undertake to supply it to me as a matter of urgency. Indeed, next day I received a letter from her in which she stated:I explained that there is ongoing enforcement activity in the Morecambe Bay area, with the specific purpose of tackling the cockle-picking problem. A successful police and immigration operation went ahead in August 2003, just before you received a reply from Fiona Mactaggart on the previous DWP operation in June. On this occasion 37 cockle-pickers were arrested. You were not aware until today that this had taken place and explained that this may have been because it took place in a part of the bay that was not in your constituency. I have attached at Annex A a specific breakdown of the relevant activity.That breakdown listed the following immigration operations under the heading, "Immigration service activity involving cockle-pickers in Morecambe bay since June 2003". I quote:19th June 2003—Pilling Sands, near Morecambe … 19 June a joint police and DWP operation was conducted at Pilling Sands near Morecambe Bay. This was primarily an intelligence-led operation focused on benefit fraud. The intelligence and planning was focused on the police and DWP as the priority agencies for this particular operation.5th August 2003—Morecambe Bay (the sandbank close to Morecambe town) … 37 Chinese cockle pickers were arrested by the police in Morecambe Bay. This was a police led operation. UKIS provided Immigration Officer assistance.6th August 2003—Morecambe Bay (the sandbank close to Morecambe town) … The following day, on 6 August DWP led operation was scheduled to take place and UKIS had allocated Immigration Staff to assist. Because of the previous day's operation by the police, there were no further arrests on this occasion.A cursory glance at the details associated with the three operations purported to have taken place in the Morecambe bay area told me that the information that I had been given was seriously flawed. Therefore, having carefully considered the options open to me, I decided to write back to the Minister on 19 February to make her aware of my concerns and to ask her to investigate the issue. I also informed her that I felt that I had a duty to place what had occurred on the public record. She replied to me later on the same day, stating:One of the objectives of the meeting was to brief you on the Immigration Department's enforcement activity in relation to cockle-picking in general and most particularly that in Morecambe Bay. The details I supplied about the major Police/ Immigration Service operation on 4/5th of August were correct and I stand by them.1141 Does the Minister still stand by them? She continued:I also included details of the DWP operation on 6th August which IND officials mistakenly informed me was in Morecambe Bay. In fact, although it was another cockle-picking operation, it took place elsewhere in the North West. Obviously I regret this minor error but I hope you agree it does not in any way materially affect the information I was providing you on the major operation that took place in August 2003 in Morecambe.The Minister's position was further reinforced by a Government spokesperson who confirmed to the media that the information that had been given was correct. In view of that, I decided to write to the Home Secretary to ask for a meeting to discuss the issue. I was therefore rather surprised when, on 23 February, in reply to a question from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the Minister of State said that she was holding an inquiry into the information that I had been given. The Home Secretary subsequently confirmed that in his reply to my letter. I am left to wonder what prompted her change of heart.
I shall outline the specific reasons for my belief that the information that I received from the Minister is misleading and inaccurate. I ask for the following points to be considered. First, to cite the operation on Pilling sands as an example of immigration service enforcement activity beggars belief. The fact that the immigration service had declined to participate in that operation triggered my original letter to the Minister in June last year. It appears that affirmed inactivity is being claimed as positive action.
Secondly, I am concerned about the operation that allegedly took place on 5 August in Morecambe bay on a sandbank close to Morecambe town. No operation took place on any sandbank close to Morecambe town on that day or on any other day that year. The cockle beds in my constituency were closed until December. No one picking cockles was arrested, as stated in the details associated with the alleged raid. That probably explains why I was unaware of the activity—it simply did not happen.
My third point refers to the operation that is listed in annexe A as occurring on 6 August 2003 in Morecambe bay on a sandbank close to Morecambe town. Although the Minister acknowledges in her letter of 19 February that the specific location was incorrect, I do not agree that the substitution of a precise site for a vague locationelsewhere in the North Westwas a "minor" error.
Even more serious is the statement in the annexe thatbecause of the previous day's operation by the police there were no further arrests on this occasion.The link between the two operations that were alleged to have taken place at the same precise location rules out the possibility that the inaccurate information could have been supplied in error or through incompetence. It is clear to me that whoever was responsible for producing the information set out deliberately to mislead.
I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions operation on 6 August took place in the Dee estuary and would not have been affected by a police operation in Morecambe. I also understand that the immigration service did not participate in the operation 1142 on the Dee. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that. I believe that the points that I have raised clearly justify my claim that the information that I received from the Minister was misleading and inaccurate.
I should like to refer to two events that happened in Morecambe and involved the immigration service. The first took place just before midnight on 29 July last year. Following complaints from local residents, the police attended a house in central Morecambe and found 22 people, who were believed to be Chinese, occupying a ground-floor flat. Most of those people spoke little or no English and the police were unable to establish their status as regards their presence in this country. Despite repeated attempts, they were unable to contact the immigration service for help, getting only an out-of-hours answerphone. The police did not have the capacity to house the 22 people safely in custody if they arrested them, and the owner of the premises insisted that they were removed. The police removed them from the property and left them to wander the streets of Morecambe in the middle of the night, cold and wet.
The second event took place on 4 August last year. Again, following complaints from local residents, police attended a house in Morecambe and arrested 37 Chinese nationals on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. They housed those arrested in police stations in Morecambe, Lancaster and Fleetwood. The first arrests took place at 4.35 pm, and the immigration service was immediately contacted. It took it some 20 hours to arrive to help the police to process those arrested. I understand that the police may hold people for only 24 hours. All those arrested were then released back into the community.
I stress that both those operations arose as a result of complaints from members of the public relating to antisocial behaviour, and were in no way, in the words of the Minister,part of ongoing enforcement activity in the Morecambe Bay area with the specific purpose of tackling the cockle picking problem.In closing, I draw the House's attention to the fact that I have submitted a number of named-day questions to the Home Office, which it has as yet failed to answer. Therefore, will the Minister answer the following questions when she replies? Will she confirm that the information that I received in her letter of 12 February was inaccurate and misleading? Will she confirm that no police or immigration service operation took place in Morecambe bay on a sandbank close to Morecambe town on 4, 5 or 6 August 2003? Will she confirm that no persons picking cockles were arrested in Morecambe bay as a result of police operations in Morecambe bay on 4, 5 or 6 August 2003?
Can the Minister give details of any proactive, multi-agency, ongoing enforcement activity in the Morecambe bay area with the specific purpose of tackling the cockle-picking problem during 2003? Can she say who was responsible for the inaccurate and misleading information that I received? Can she say what, if any, remedial action is being considered? Can she assure me that when the Home Office has finished its internal inquiry into the matter, a full statement will be made to the House? Finally, when she replies to the debate, will she concentrate on answering as many of my questions as she can, and not seek to avoid them by giving the House a sermon on Government policy?
§ The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration(Beverley Hughes)
I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) for the detailed work that she has undertaken, for the support that she has shown to her constituents, both on the night of the tragedy in Morecambe bay, 5 February, and subsequently, and for her work to ensure that everything is done to prevent such an event from happening again. The Government and I share the widespread concern about that night's tragic events, and sympathise with the bereaved. The police investigation is ongoing, and I am confident that the police's ability to bring the perpetrators to justice will prevail.
The current position is that a number of people have been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter in connection with the deaths that night. I cannot give further details, but two immigration officers continue to provide their full-time support to the police, and they have already provided invaluable assistance with the identification of the deceased.
The subject of the debate is, primarily, the information that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), and I provided about various incidents involving cockle pickers in Morecambe bay last summer. It will help our debate if I briefly set out the background to those incidents, and the related correspondence.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale said, she wrote to me on 28 June to express her concerns about cockle picking; in her constituency, and in particular her concern about the immigration service's apparent non-attendance at an operation involving the Department for Work and Pensions and Lancashire police at Pilling sands, near Morecambe, on 19 June. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary replied on 8 August. She confirmed that the operation on 19 June had primarily focused on benefit fraud, and that previous operations had found few, if any, removable offenders. The letter went on to say that intelligence suggested that that would be the situation on 19 June and that the Chinese nationals concerned—if there were any—would not provide us with sufficient evidence to mount a charge for employment offences against those who employed them. The position then, as now, was that the immigration service, and any other service involved in policing illegal working, had to maximise the effectiveness of its enforcement resources in the light of various competing priorities. It was felt that the attendance of the immigration service on 19 June would not, because of the nature of that particular operation, be an effective use of resources.
My hon. Friend mentioned that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently announced an examination of the resourcing and management of immigration enforcement. This will examine issues including the resources currently devoted to enforcing the immigration law in this country, and how those resources are deployed. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary also set out in her letter the fact that the 1144 immigration service was fully committed to assisting the police and other agencies with tackling the problems associated with illegal working and with cockling in Morecambe bay, and I would like to say that that remains the case. She evidenced this commitment by reference to incidents involving cockle pickers which the immigration service had supported both in Morecambe and elsewhere, before the operation on Pilling sands. My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale has had that information, but she has chosen not to mention it today.
On 4 August 2003, the police arrested 37 cockle pickers in Morecambe. I understand that the police received telephone calls during early August concerning groups of apparently illegal Chinese immigrants. Those calls related either to the occupation of local premises or to cockling on local public fisheries. On 4 August, the police attended a local address following further complaints of suspicious activity, and police records show that they started to arrest Chinese cockle pickers at 4.35 pm on 4 August 2003. Police records indicate that they first contacted the immigration service's office about the activity that they were undertaking during the evening of 4 August.
§ Beverley Hughes
It is important to get this in sequence, but I shall certainly give way in a moment.
The police made a significant number of arrests and made arrangements for the safe accommodation overnight of the detainees at police custody suites in the area. During the morning of 5 August, the immigration service's Liverpool office immediately started to draw a team together. with the equipment necessary to interview, fingerprint, photograph and serve illegal entry papers on the Chinese nationals, as appropriate.
§ Beverley Hughes
I will give way in a moment.
Having completed checks during the morning against the relevant databases and obtained an interpreter, an immigration officer from Liverpool arrived at Lancaster police station at 1.24 pm to assist the police in identifying the immigration status of those who did not appear on Home Office records. Two immigration officers continue to provide support to police in the area.
§ Geraldine Smith
Will the Minister comment on the operations that she referred to in her letter to me? It mentioned one on 5 August at Morecambe bay, on a sandbank close to Morecambe town, and one on 6 August on the sandbank close to Morecambe town—operations that did not take place. Is she seriously suggesting that the reaction of the police to complaints 1145 from residents in Morecambe is directly comparable with a pre-planned multi-agency operation that took place on Pilling sands or, indeed, on the Dee?
§ Beverley Hughes
No, I am not saying that. I shall get to that point in a moment.
The next relevant incident that my hon. Friend referred to occurred on 6 August at Thurstaston on the Wirral Dee estuary. This was a Department for Work and Pensions-led operation that targeted cockle pickers on the River Dee. The immigration service provided two immigration officers in support of the operation, but no foreign nationals were encountered on that day.
We now arrive at the tragic events of 5 February this year, after which I had a meeting with my hon. Friend, on 12 February. During our meeting, I agreed to set out in writing the immigration service's enforcement activity in relation to cockle picking, which I did the same day. We tried to fax it to my hon. Friend that day, but we could not get it through on the fax machine. I also promised to let her have details of the number of rescue operations carried out in the Morecambe bay area, and I have written to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to ask it to provide her with the information.
My hon. Friend then wrote to me on 19 February to point out what she considered to be discrepancies between the information in my letter of 12 February and the events as she understood them. I responded that day by saying that I understood that the details that I had given about the incident on 4 and 5 August were correct, but that I had been given the incorrect location for the operation on 6 August by officials—an error which I regretted.
An investigation of how the erroneous information came to be given to me by officials has been undertaken by a senior member of the immigration and nationality directorate. It highlights significant inadequacies in record keeping in the Liverpool enforcement office. As a result, the details that I sent to my hon. Friend were drawn up on the basis of the recollection of staff who were available at the time, and they have turned out to be faulty. I am satisfied that this was done with the best of intentions of giving as full an account as possible. However, the staff responsible have been told in the strongest terms that in such cases the need for accuracy is absolutely paramount. Information should be checked, and any doubt about its accuracy should be made clear.
§ Geraldine Smith
What about the linkage in the operations between 5 August and 6 August? If it was just a simple error, it was just incompetence, and officials made a mistake about the location, why did they link the two operations together, and why did they say that no one had been arrested on 6 August because of the arrests on the previous day?
§ Beverley Hughes
Perhaps I can clarify those issues as I continue.
1146 The most serious problem is the absence of satisfactory records on the basis of which a confident and accurate account could and should have been given. The investigating officer, supported by a colleague from IND's human resources directorate, will now look further into how these management failures came about so that senior management can consider what further action would be appropriate. In the meantime, an additional senior manager has been appointed to lead the Liverpool office and to implement the necessary changes there.
Now that the matter has been investigated, it is also clear that aspects of the details given to me by officials about the role of the immigration service in the events of the 4 August and 5 August were not wholly accurate, and I regret that as a result my hon. Friend was not given the full picture. However, the broad outline of that picture was correct—that on those days there was a police-led activity in the Morecambe bay area involving Chinese cockle pickers, which the immigration service supported when requested.
§ Beverley Hughes
I will give way one more time, but I say to my hon. Friend that she has made understandable allegations, and I must put on the record the facts as I now understand them.
§ Geraldine Smith
But the Minister has not answered any of my questions. It is just not true that the police arresting 37 people on Chatsworth road, Morecambe, as a result of complaints from members of the public is the same or in any way comparable to a pre-planned immigration operation.
§ Beverley Hughes
No, and I am not saying that it is the same. What my hon. Friend needs to understand, however, is that operations against illegal workers take place in a variety of different ways—sometimes spontaneously, sometimes conducted in a planned way by one agency, and sometimes conducted in a planned way by agencies operating together. That does not negate the fact that strong co-operation exists, and that agencies try to respond to requests for assistance from any of their colleagues in other agencies. I agree with her that this was not a jointly planned operation—the police were acting spontaneously in relation to facts that were brought to their notice. They did not inform the immigration service about their intentions to act on this. They decided to initiate the activity themselves, which is within their province and they did not inform the immigration service of this activity, which was clearly going to involve foreign nationals, until the evening of 4 August.
§ Beverley Hughes
No, I am going to conclude, because we have almost run out of time.
I would not want my hon. Friend to conclude from this that the priority given to illegal working is less than it should be. Over the last financial year, there has been a substantial increase in resources of £40 million within the immigration service. There have been a very large number of major or operations to apprehend illegal 1147 workers, and a very large number of additional people have been apprehended and removed, despite the difficulty with Chinese people. And in relation to the activity of our organised branch, the Reflex operation, a large number of the criminal gangs behind this illegal working have been disrupted. I therefore hope that she 1148 will accept that while I regret the wrong information given to me and to her, that does not negate the excellent work that the immigration service and other agencies are fulfilling in tackling this very serious problem.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at half-past Six o'clock.