§ David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
(urgent question),: Will the Secretary of State make a statement on the immigration service's operation of the European Communities association agreement?
§ The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes)
Under the European Communities association agreement—which was signed in 1994, 1995 and 1999–citizens of countries seeking to accede to the European Union must be treated on a par with European economic area nationals for the purpose of establishing themselves in business in any member state. This means that nationals of a number of central and eastern European countries can set themselves up in a company, as sole traders or in a partnership, in any of the existing member states. In the United Kingdom, the EC association agreements are incorporated into the immigration rules. To enter under this category, an applicant has to provide evidence that the proposed business will generate enough income to maintain him or her and any dependants.
Towards the end of last year, a backlog of such cases accumulated in our Sheffield office, following the introduction of charging and a seasonal increase in other applications during the autumn. Without any authorisation from any Minister, or from senior managers or the director general guidance was issued locally to staff, to the effect that in straightforward cases—mostly those involving people who already had leave to remain—the application should be granted without further inquiries being made, provided that a business plan had been submitted.
There was no question of staff being instructed to grant such leave to those whom they believed to be fraudulent. Furthermore, the guidance made it explicit that applications from those here illegally were to be refused in the normal way. However, the guidance did enable workers to approve applications without further checks in cases involving those who were already here legally—they are the majority—or those who were otherwise judged to be low risk. Ministers were not consulted and I have ordered a full investigation into how this came about. The investigation will be conducted by a senior immigration and nationality directorate official, from outside the managed migration directorate. I have also issued instructions that the local guidance be rescinded forthwith, and that all such cases receive the same level of scrutiny as before.
I refute categorically, however, the suggestion that this was a deliberate policy to reduce the impact of accession on 1 May. The essential point is that, as I have said, no change in practice was authorised by Ministers or senior managers. It is worth remembering that, principally, the people affected were already lawfully in this country.
§ David Davis
The Minister has announced an investigation, the first stage of which will presumably be to establish the facts about the procedures and the behaviour of the Home Office immigration service. Will she publish those facts within one month, so that the 1244 House of Commons can know what is happening before European Union accession on 1 May? Will she assure the House that any civil servant who tells the truth about this issue will not be disciplined or punished for doing so?
On Sunday, a Home Office spokesman said:There have been no changes in procedures or dip in the level of the scrutiny applied by caseworkers.I take it that the Minister no longer stands by that statement. She claims that she was unaware of the behaviour described by Mr. Moxon. However, the Home Office has had three days since it was challenged by The Sunday Times over the issue on Friday, and two months since Mr. Moxon e-mailed her. At the very least, she should be able to confirm or deny the existence of the documents described in the newspapers.
As the Minister has asked us to believe that neither she nor the Home Secretary was aware of the decision, will she tell us who authorised it? In particular, will she confirm the existence of the document entitled "Flexibility guidance: ECAA guidance for Entry Clearance cases post August 1st", which stated:As this is NOT a published policy, however, no reference should be made to this, either to the applicants/representatives, or on the immigration service computer system"?Will the right hon. Lady explain that doctrine of unpublished policy? Is this a policy whose existence is withheld from Ministers, or is it just Parliament and the public who are meant to know nothing of it? Are there other secret immigration policies of which the House has not been notified?
Is it true that the document says thatprevious failed asylum seekers or illegal entrants can still benefit under Entry Clearance Rules"?Is that official policy, or is it another secret guideline unknown to Ministers? Is it true that the document states that guidelines were relaxed so that even if there were no proof of financial status whatever, the policy would still be to grant one year's leave to remain in the country? How many people have been allowed in under the new rules? Will the Home Office review the decisions taken in the last six months, and could decisions be overturned?
Does the Minister realise that this is not the first time stories have emanated from the immigration service about fiddling the figures? There have been at least three, if we include those about soft-pedalling on illegal immigration and asylum. Does she not remember that I raised this question with her at the most recent Home Office questions, and she dismissed it? Will she explain why she did not act on the e-mails sent to her about the problem? Mr. Moxon's supervisor confirms that those were sent to her on 12 January.
Does the Minister recognise that whether there has been collusion, cover-up or simple incompetence, the responsibility for this disgrace rests firmly with her and with the Home Secretary?
§ Beverley Hughes
I set up the investigation for the exact purpose of establishing the facts, and I will certainly find out how we can make those facts known to Members of the House in the most appropriate way. If it is any comfort to the right hon. Gentleman, I can tell 1245 him that I do not relish being in this position; it is not a position that I would want to be in. The situation that has been revealed as pertaining at a junior level in Sheffield is quite unacceptable; I make no bones about that.
The right hon. Gentleman has asked me several questions, and I shall deal with them in so far as I have the answers today. The response from the Home Office to the press reports on Friday—that there had been no dip in scrutiny—was wrong. That advice was given to the press office by a senior manager, who was one of the people who did not know at that time that the local guidance had been given and was operating. Arguably, she should have known, but she did not, and she gave the best advice that she had on Friday. Since then, as a result of The Sunday Times story, senior officials and I worked all through yesterday to get the information, as far as we could.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the e-mail sent to me, and I am grateful for an opportunity to clear up that matter. I visited the office concerned on 4 December and, as I always do, I had a question-and-answer session with staff. I understand that Mr. Moxon wrote three questions that he wanted to put to me. He was not in the meeting, and I did not get to see him, or those—[Horn. MEMBERS:"Why not?"] I have no idea why he was not there.
Mr. Moxon's questions then went round a number of managers and eventually came to my private office on 12 January. I did not know that until yesterday—[HON. MEMBERS:"What?"] I know that Members will suspect another conspiracy, but the fact is that I had a new member of staff starting work on 12 January, and in the week from 12 to 16 January she was shadowing the person who was leaving. I am afraid that I was not informed until yesterday about that e-mail, which was not sent on for senior managers to construct a reply for me. The situation is not acceptable, but that particular issue was the result of a human error on the part of an assistant private secretary in my office. As the right hon. Gentleman has been in this position himself, I hope that he accepts that Ministers do not manage civil servants; we depend on senior officials to give us the right information so that we can correct points that need to be corrected.
The right hon. Gentleman asked who authorised the local guidance, and that is the point of the investigation.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. There are no points of order during a statement. I should have thought that a member of the Chairmen's Panel would know that. I also expect a member of the Chairmen's Panel not to shout while the Minister is speaking.
§ Beverley Hughes
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
I have not yet established who authorised the publication and distribution of the guidance, and that is the point of the investigation. I saw the flexibility guidance to which the right hon. Gentleman refers for the first time this morning—it was issued in September 2003 and contains the quotations that he read from it.
1246 This is the system for ECAA applications: if a person is in the country, they can initially apply for one year's leave to remain. The terms of the accession treaties require such people to be treated in exactly the same way as other member states' nationals, so it is meant to be a light-touch assessment. If such people are still here after a year and their business is sustaining itself, they must apply again, and bank statements and records of national insurance contributions are required at that point. The situation is the same in every EU country, and there is nothing different about it here.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about numbers. People given leave to remain for that purpose are included in migration statistics, but they are not identified as having come through that route—they are included in the leave to remain figures and the further leave to remain figures. That is not acceptable, and we must see whether we can extract those figures so that they are discernable.
I think that I heard someone call out that 11,000 applications were processed in one week, and that figure has featured in some press reports. I can make no sense of it, and the investigation will explore that point. I am pretty sure that it is not possible that 11,000 applications were processed through the ECAA route in one week, because the backlog that staff were trying to reduce was 7,000 cases. However, the confusion over the 11,000 figure may have arisen because 500,000 cases come through the general group every year—those cases cover leave to remain and do not include asylum, nationality or work permits. That figure covers all the cases processed in Sheffield, Croydon and Liverpool for any purpose—marriage, students or whatever—and it equates to about 11,000 cases a week. I wonder whether it has been promoted as relating to the ECAA applications through confusion or a more malicious purpose, but I am fairly clear that it does not.
§ Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab
May I welcome the statement by my right hon. Friend, who is right to initiate an inquiry? This may be the first time in history that Home Office officials have been criticised for removing a backlog rather than creating one. She will know that in 52 days' rime such applicants will be full EU citizens with the right to work here subject to registration. Will she give an undertaking that the status granted by the Home Office in Sheffield will not be affected by Conservative Members' comments?
§ Beverley Hughes
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's question. It is not feasible to reconsider applications that have already been granted—among other things, there would be many legal impediments—but I shall ask my officials to consider the matter. My hon. Friend will know that, as far as self-employed people are concerned, no member state can derogate from the terms of the treaty.
I might point out that the terms of the treaty were agreed in 1994, when the Conservative Government were in control. The treaty allows nationals of acceding countries to come into this country under these special arrangements before 1 May 2004, in anticipation of the rights that they will have after that date. At that point, those nationals will be able to enter any EU country and establish a business without any requirement to publish 1247 a business plan or anything else. They are to be treated exactly the same as EU nationals. As my hon. Friend says, that will be the case in a few weeks' time.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
I have listened with great care to what the Minister has said this afternoon, but the only bit that I feel able to welcome is the fact that an inquiry has been established. Even on that, I believe that it should be independent of the Department, which is clearly at fault. This is no longer about immigration policy: it is a question of the competence and organisation of the Department, right up to Ministers themselves. Is it not unsustainable for an undisclosed policy to run in parallel with the policy disclosed to the House? That is especially the case when it would appear that people are being admitted on little more than a bus ticket, while others in similar circumstances are deported. That is not sustainable.
Was Mr. Moxon required to operate the policy in the Department's Sheffield office at the time when my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) asked questions specifically about the operation of the office on 2 July 2003, at column 324W? Specific requests were made of the Minister to provide information on the operation of the directorate in Sheffield. Were no inquiries made at that time? Was there dissimulation on the part of those working in that office? Was it simply the case that the advice to civil servants that they were not even to refer to the policy guidance on their computers extended to not referring to it in response to parliamentary questions?
If, as the Minister has said this afternoon, the basic principles of what Mr. Moxon has described—for whatever motives—in the newspapers are true, and the documents on which he based his evidence were genuine, is not it extraordinary that it is Mr. Moxon who is suspended and will presumably be subject to further disciplinary action, rather than those who ordered this extraordinary state of affairs?
§ Beverley Hughes
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's basic premise that questions clearly arise about competence, unacceptable behaviour and management. The investigation will seek to provide the answers to those questions. However, my biggest regret is that incidents such as this, however rare and untypical they may be, create a general impression about the vast majority of very good staff in the immigration and nationality directorate, who have worked hard in the past 18 months to build up an organisation that the Conservatives left in a parlous state in 1997. It grieves me that the efforts that the staff have put in and what they have achieved—in getting to grips with asylum applications and correspondence, and introducing proper practices to the organisation—are diminished and clouded by the actions of some people. However well intentioned those actions may have been, they were wrong and cannot be justified. I am taking action to ensure that we get the full answers as to how and why the problem arose, why senior managers did not know and how people can feel that they can behave in that way without permission.
As to Mr. Moxon, I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands—and agrees—that it is not the job of Ministers to manage personnel. I am sure that in other parallel circumstances, all Opposition parties would 1248 acknowledge that. I have to leave decisions about personnel to senior managers, who decide what, if anything, needs to be done.
§ Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
As the Minister said, the flexibility policy was not approved by Ministers in any way whatever and is now to be cancelled. Given that Mr. Moxon endeavoured to advise the Minister, by writing letters to her, is it not wrong in principle to suspend him? In my view, he has done nothing wrong, and has only drawn the Government's attention to a muddle. Will the Minister try to solve the problem by ensuring that in every month until May, she publishes the number of people who have been permitted to come here from the eastern European countries that are being admitted to the EU?
§ Beverley Hughes
On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I would like to clarify an important aspect of applications through the ECAA route, where people apply to set up businesses here. The vast majority of people given permission to settle through that route are already—and legally—here. We are not talking about a whole additional group of people coming in: there are some, but the majority are here in one capacity or another, have been admitted regularly and are here legally. Some people are applying to switch into the business route. It is important that Members understand that and avoid claiming that somehow large numbers of additional people are coming into the country through that route. As I said, most are already legally here.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about Mr. Moxon, but an investigation is taking place and managers have taken the view that it is right and appropriate for him to be suspended at this time. He will be interviewed and no doubt managers will reach their own conclusions about what, if anything, needs to be done.
§ Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con):
In the light of the very unsatisfactory circumstances relating to the Minister's office, which must be her personal responsibility, will she now say exactly when she discovered the state of affairs that she has described today?
§ Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con)
When the House debated and passed the EU enlargement treaty last year, many hon. Members asked the Minister about the immigration figures. We accepted her assurances then on the assumption that she was in control of her Department. It now seems that her Department ran a parallel covert immigration policy, so was not the House misled in that respect when the treaty legislation was passed?
Will the Minister comment on a further specific matter? She alluded at that time to a Home Office study that established that the maximum immigration from the country concerned would be between 5,000 and 13,000 a year. Will she confirm that she still holds and stands by those figures? Ministers have been asked about that repeatedly in recent weeks, but have provided evasive answers.
§ Beverley Hughes
We have not given any evasive answers. I certainly accept that we should be as well 1249 informed and transparent about these issues as possible, but I would also say, with respect, that the right hon. Gentleman needs to be better informed. The questions that he has just asked reveal considerable muddle about the issues. There are two main issues. One is the ability of people to enter the country and seek work—in other words, to be given free movement as workers. In respect of an estimate of those numbers, the Home Office commissioned independent research by University college London, which produced best estimate or best advice figures.
What we are now discussing is a wholly separate issue: under the terms of the EU treaty, every member state signing up to it—I have already said that when it was signed in 1994, the UK was Conservative controlled— agreed to allow a number of people to enter the country not to work, but to set up in business. That applied to all member states under the terms of that agreement up to 1 May this year, after which there will be no further requirements under free movement provisions to allow people to go through some form of process if they are to set up a business. They will be treated like any UK citizen, and the same terms apply in Germany, France, Italy—[Interruption.] I am surprised that the shadow Secretary of State does not seem to understand the rules. People from any member state—both now under the terms of the EC association agreements and in May under the terms of the treaty—will be able to come into the country, be treated like any UK citizen and set up a business.
§ Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab)
Bearing in mind that Her Majesty's Opposition and all the other parties voted for the accession treaty, will a single additional person from the accession countries, who would not have had the right to be here, be in this country on 1 May as a result of this hiccup?
§ Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
Will the Minister take this opportunity to congratulate Mr. Moxon on trying to alert her through the proper channels in December and January? Will she assure the House that disciplinary action will not be taken against him, and will she promise us that disciplinary action will be taken against all those who put through this unauthorised policy and, as she tells us, kept her in the dark?
§ Beverley Hughes
I have already said that an investigation is under way. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that it was this Government who introduced legislation to protect so-called whistleblowers. I wonder 1250 what his view of that was at the time. The bottom line is that I am glad that I now know what has been going on; I am glad that somebody has told me—and so are the senior managers. I repeat, though, that I regret the method that Mr. Moxon has used, not because of me—[Interruption.] I say I hat because it has cast a shadow —[Interruption.]
§ Beverley Hughes
It has cast a shadow over the excellent work of the vast majority of those in the IND, and has created a general impression, which is not typical, of such work.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
I am almost sorry for the Minister, but I am a great deal more sorry for my constituents and the many other electors who have been kept in the dark—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Wilkinson
They have been kept in the dark by the Home Office and Her Majesty's Government over the extent of immigration into this country. Will not boroughs such as Hillingdon, which are in the front line due to the presence of Heathrow—the premier port of entry in the UK for immigration—be deeply preoccupied by the fact that the Government and the Minister's Department have been allowing a flexibility clause whereby those who came in, perhaps legally, have no work, are not in partnership and are not in paid self-employment? That has put a further burden on the health and social services in my borough, which are already over-stretched by asylum seekers and others.
§ Beverley Hughes
The hon. Gentleman's question illustrates the dividing line between his party and mine on the subject of immigration. Unlike him and his party, we welcome immigration where our economy needs it and do not automatically reject migrants. Provided that people come in legally and do not try to misuse the asylum system, we want people to contribute to our economy. I remind the hon. Gentleman that people coming in through such a route—I am not condoning for a moment the dip in scrutiny that has taken place—are supporting themselves. They do not have access to public funds. They are not able to take paid employment when they enter the country through this route, but they are supporting themselves and their families. Many are providing much-needed services, particularly in London and the south-east, as plumbers, cleaners and builders—services that many people in this country are not willing to provide. Such immigrants play an important part in that sector of our economy.