HL Deb 11 February 2004 vol 656 cc1102-6

3.4 p.m.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of events in Morecambe Bay, they will consider allowing asylum seekers whose applications are pending to take up lawful employment.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the Government share the widespread concern about last week's tragic events in Morecambe Bay and sympathise with those bereaved. We believe it is vital that the asylum process is used for its intended purpose; namely, helping those people fleeing persecution, in line with the 1951 convention. It should not be used as a route for those seeking work. However, the Government support legal migration for work purposes. We have significantly increased the number of work permits issued to UK businesses and opened up routes for lower skilled workers.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness on becoming Peer of the Year.

Our hearts go out to the families of those who lost their lives in Morecambe Bay, in particular those who lost their only source of income. I know that the Minister shares our concern about human trafficking, which now seems to be more profitable than trafficking drugs. Does the Minister agree that the ugly side of this equation is that countless people have lost their lives when being trafficked across frontiers? Those who survive then become victims of exploitation in sweatshops, in cheap labour and in prostitution. Can she explain what is being done to deal with those who mastermind such operations? How many prosecutions have been brought and is there a Europe-wide strategy to deal with this issue?

Would it not be appropriate to allow asylum seekers to work so that there is some dignity while their applications are being considered?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his congratulations. I do not believe that it was deserved, but I am very grateful to all noble Lords.

I share the concerns expressed by the noble Lord about human trafficking because what happened in Morecambe Bay was, of course, a human tragedy first and foremost. The Government are absolutely committed to reducing the numbers engaged in illegal working and the Immigration Service regularly disrupts illegal working activity. Between April and June 2003 the Immigration Service reported carrying out 79 illegal working operations of which 27 were aimed at detecting five or more illegal workers. Between October and November last year the number of reported operations increased by over 75 percent on the second quarter to 141, while the operations aimed at detecting five or more illegal workers rose by over 175 per cent to 75.

I turn to the point made by the noble Lord about allowing people to work. Noble Lords will know that we have significantly reduced the time it takes to determine applications, which is of the greatest assistance. We want people to come here by legal means and we are seeking to take out the illegality in the system because it brings tragedies of this kind. We shall eradicate it if it is humanly possible so to do.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, everyone agrees that these people have been quite disgracefully exploited. Can my noble friend tell the House what arrangements are being made to inspect employment sites of this kind to ensure that people are paid at least the minimum wage?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are taking steps, some of which I have just outlined, to enforce the system rigorously. Many gangmasters behave appropriately and obey the regulations, but others do not. A holistic approach needs to be taken to this issue which is what we, together with the many other agencies involved, are doing.

Lord Chan

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that the number of people working in the illegal economy is very large? Given that, what are the Government doing to police, weed out and punish those benefiting from it not only by making high profits but also by penalising local citizens who would expect to be paid a minimum normal working wage?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lord, we are taking a number of steps, not the least of which is the introduction of a new offence of trafficking and exploitation to be included in the asylum Bill. Work is under way with the Reflex taskforce against organised crime and we have announced the creation of a serious organised crime agency. Those actions underline our determination to tackle organised crime in co-operation with our international partners. This is something which we have to pursue with increasing vigour. I can assure the House that this Government are wholly committed to bringing this dreadful practice to an end.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, the tragedy in Morecambe Bay is surely to be added to the tragedy in Worcestershire when a train collided with a minibus full of workers in slightly different but relatively similar circumstances. Does the Minister agree that there seems to be a discernible shift in the public response to these matters because events of this kind display to people the enormous human cost involved in people trafficking and the offering of opportunities for illegal work? Before the last election the Prime Minister offered to Church leaders that he would invest more in the business of educating the public about the nature and sources of asylum seekers and their increased numbers. Does the Minister agree that that would be a way of capitalising on the shift in public mood and facilitate the Government in making proper humane and compassionate provision for asylum seekers in this country?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate that this shows the other side of the equation. The one light on the horizon is that the natural humanity of this country towards those in need is shining out more clearly now than it has hitherto. Education is important and we shall continue to do all we can in that regard. Noble Lords will know that we are revising the secondary legislation supporting Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 to ensure that we are all focused on eradicating the illegality at present in the system.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, do the Government accept the recommendation made recently by the All-Party Select Committee on Home Affairs that the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002—which can be used to seize the assets of people traffickers—should also be used to seize the assets of those who employ illegal workers and subject them to the kind of conditions suffered by those involved in the tragedy at Morecambe Bay?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, as I said, we shall shortly be revising the secondary legislation supporting Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. As your Lordships know, that legislation deals with employers and the prevention of illegal working. It will strengthen the kinds of documentation that employers are required to check to comply with Section 8. This will make it easier for the Immigration Service to identify and prosecute non-compliant employers. In the longer term, the introduction of ID cards will be a major boost in the fight against illegal working.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in her response to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, she overlooked to report how many prosecutions have been initiated? I should be grateful if she would reply to that point.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I do not have to hand the precise number of prosecutions and I shall write to the noble Lord. I outlined how many operations have been undertaken and the fact that the numbers of prosecutions that have flowed from them have increased. I do not have the information required by the noble Lord, but I shall certainly write to him setting out the figures once I am aware of them.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, it is well known that Morecambe Bay has a ferocious incoming tide. Was there an error in the tidal predictions in the tide tables for that particular night?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I do not know whether there was an error in the tidal predictions. However, I do know that there were people in Morecambe Bay at that time who were not legally permitted to be there. I cannot comment on the ongoing detailed investigations. Noble Lords will know that five people have been arrested. I am obviously not privy to the evidence that will make up any future prosecution.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned—

Lord Jopling

My Lords—

Noble Lords

Cross Benches!

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I believe it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned that asylum decisions are now being made somewhat more quickly and that is, of course, welcome. But is it not the case that there is still a very large backlog and that appeals take a long time? In those circumstances, does she not agree that it would enhance individual human dignity, as well as saving welfare support, if bona fide applicants were allowed to take up legal work?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand the sentiment behind the noble Lord's question but what he suggests would pre-determine whether a claim is well founded. The noble Lord referred to "bona fide" applicants. The whole process that we have put in place seeks to determine that very fact. We have tried to go more quickly for precisely the reason indicated by the noble Lord; namely, that those who have bona fide claims must be allowed to get on with their lives as quickly as possible. This will enable them to take advantage of work and to receive the benefits to which they are entitled. We have reduced the timescale significantly and the majority of claims are dealt with within six months. That timescale is going down and many claims are now dealt with within two months. I hope noble Lords will agree that that is a very short period which allows people to get on with their lives very quickly indeed.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, speaking as one who for many years represented parts of Morecambe Bay, I associate myself with the Minister's expression of sympathy. But, speaking also as a former fisheries Minister, will the noble Baroness ask her ministerial colleagues to look again at the current exploitation of the fishery resource within Morecambe Bay? It is an extremely valuable resource which, at the moment, is in danger of being over-exploited and fished out. Will the Government consider the possibility of imposing much tighter controls and licensing so that that valuable fishery resource is not totally played out?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. Notwithstanding that his comments go slightly wide of the Question, I absolutely understand why he makes them. I shall ensure that my colleagues are made aware of his comments. The noble Lord will be aware that, even now, there are issues regarding the licensing of fishery matters in this kind of situation.