HC Deb 24 May 2000 vol 350 cc256-63WH 12.59 pm
Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

I am grateful for the opportunity to draw attention to what appear to be serious irregularities on the part of the immigration service in the way in which the renewal of the contract for the escort of persons to be removed from the United Kingdom under the Immigration Act 1971 was conducted. I shall also refer to allegations of unacceptably late payments by the IS of money requested in invoices, involving delays of up to four years. I shall cite evidence of administrative chaos, and the failure of the IS to keep records of removals.

These matters were drawn to my attention by Mr. Barry Southon, who lives at Broadoak, Brede, in my constituency. He is the proprietor of Airline Security Consultants Ltd. ASC has worked for the IS for some 18 years. In this debate, I shall rely on what Mr. Southon has told me and shown me, which I take to be entirely sound.

At the outset, I should declare a past interest. I served as an Immigration Minister in the Home Office during the previous Parliament. I did not meet Mr. Southon in that capacity, however; I first encountered him when he came to one of my constituency advice surgeries in February this year.

I have the highest regard for the hard work and dedication shown by men and women in the IS, who must frequently operate in trying conditions. If, on some occasions in the past, I have expressed reservations about the management calibre of some senior officials in the immigration and nationality directorate, as it now is, that does not detract from my esteem for the achievements of rank-and-file members of the IS. However, none of that prevents me from putting the spotlight on what appears to show carelessness and malpractice on the part of a very few officials during the tender for the new escort contract.

I hope that, following this debate, the points that I raise will be investigated more closely, not only by the Minister—to whom I have already written—but by the National Audit Office. I asked the Comptroller and Auditor General for a copy of the Public Services Contract Regulations 1993 in connection with the debate, and I intend in due course to draw to his attention what I have said today.

Mr. Southon tells me that, since he began working under contract to the IS in 1982, he has been personally involved in the escorted removal of more than 4,000 people from the UK. I am not aware of any significant criticism by the IS of the way in which ASC has operated during that period; indeed, I have been told that, in 18 years, only nine complaints have been made about ASC, all of which proved on further investigation to be without foundation. In contrast, I have seen copies of many commendations of ASC, from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), directors, an inspector, training teams, chief immigration officers and immigration officers. All have praised the company. Some of the most recent letters of commendation have expressed downright surprise that such an experienced team should be dropped at the very time when the British public looks to the IS to increase its effectiveness in removing immigration offenders.

Over the years since 1982, ASC has developed a highly efficient service in which security and medical escorts have been made available at just two hours' notice, together with a secure vehicle with airside access when required. Until 1994, it was the sole provider of escorted removals to the IS, but, following a written question tabled in 1994 by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), who will reply to the debate—she was then an Opposition Member, and I was the Minister—a second escort company, Loss Prevention International, was taken on at the instigation of a procurement official, Mr. Paul Quibell. From then on, ASC handled about 80 per cent. of the work and LPI about 20 per cent.

In 1996, ASC—presumably along with LPI▀×participated in a tender for renewal of the escort service contract, but, for some unexplained reason, that tender competition was never completed. It was eventually abandoned three years later, in July 1999. At that juncture, ASC was asked to re-tender, which it did, by submitting an 83-page document by the due date of 9 November last year. The result of the new tender was to be announced on 20 December, although, in fact, no such announcement was made on that date.

Only one of the companies that tendered in November was called in for a clarification meeting with the IS. That was the eventual winner, LPI, whose representatives met Mr. Hassett and other officials in Croydon on 13 December when, it is alleged, they were told that they had been successful. That was a week before the designated date for the announcement of the winner.

On 20 January, a month after the date on which the result of the tender process should have been announced, Mr. Hassett spoke to Mr. Southon on the telephone and confirmed that the contract had indeed been awarded to LPI. Mr. Hassett said that another bidder, Reliance, had been placed second, ahead of ASC. A meeting was arranged for 26 January, at which Mr. Quibell gave his reasons why ASC's tender offer had not succeeded. He said that ASC had, in particular, fallen short on standards of quality and training.

At the meeting, Mr. Quibell denied that LPI had been told on 13 December that it had won the contract, but, in his letter of 21 February to Mr. Southon's solicitor, he appears to have changed his position. In that letter, Mr. Quibell admitted that we had already…selected LPI as the contractor we proposed to appoint prior to calling the company in for…further discussion…LPI attended a meeting with us on 13 December to clarify a number of points…in order to allow us to proceed to award the contract.

In that letter, Mr. Quibell said that the successful tender offer by LPI and the second-placed tenderer, Reliance, had set out a much more extensive package of training and a more comprehensive management structure. He said that the quality of systems and procedures offered by both those companies were supported by current accreditation to ISO 9002. What he did not say was that LPI's and Reliance's ISO 9002 accreditation was for activities other than deportations. The only company working for full accreditation for deportation is ASC, and the only reason for a delay in ASC's accreditation for that task is that the Home Office has refused to give the accreditation body permission to observe a removal by ASC. That was confirmed when I saw a fax from National Quality Assurance Ltd.'s regional office in London saying precisely that.

Mr. Quibell's allegation that ASC fell short of its competitors' training standards is, to say the least, strange. On 26 January, Messrs Quibell and Hassett claimed that ASC had afforded only a six-day training course, with no monitoring of staff or acceptance testing. They could not have read ASC's tender document very carefully. That document makes it clear on page 9 that the initial six days of induction training will be followed by operational training, to be conducted by experienced staff and recognised outside instructors. Pages 12 and 13 outline no fewer than 28 aspects of the on-going training sessions, and make it clear that great emphasis will be placed on training on the job. ASC should know how to train better than anyone else, as it is the only company with a sustained track record in the business.

Pages 41 and 43 of ASC's tender document show what training is to follow the induction course. Pages 23 and 45 describe performance monitoring, and the on-going assessment of escorts; pages 32, 49 and 50 explain how staffing levels will be adjusted to cope with the expected increase in the volume of work. Mr. Quibell and his colleagues were entirely wrong to suggest that the ASC tender document had nothing to say on that point.

Equally wrong was the assertion by the IS that ASC had failed to ensure that escorts would identify themselves properly. Pages 36 and 50 make clear precisely how escorts are to do that. Equally inaccurate was the IS's suggestion that ASC had ignored questions of quality and the issue of Investors in People. ASC's quality policy and the commitment to Investors in People is set out on page 5 of the tender document; similarly, page 11 sets out in detail ASC's security plan, and page 61, together with the letter at appendix 5, confirms that ASC has the ability to increase its insurance cover.

For all those reasons, the objections to ASC wheeled out by the IS simply do not stack up. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that LPI and Reliance had demonstrated a greater thoroughness than ASC in their plans, it is not good enough for the IS to claim that ASC did not have a detailed plan in its tender document when it certainly had precisely that.

As I have said, I wrote to the Minister earlier this month. I imagine that she has by now been able to compare the three tender documents from LPI, Reliance and ASC in the unamended form in which they were presented on or before 9 November last year. I hope that she will agree that it would be appropriate now for the NAO to examine those three documents, too. As I have said, it is something that I shall ask the CAG to do.

If the discrepancy between IS officials' criticism of ASC's tender document and the reality of what that document contains is not serious enough, there are other warning signals from the tender, about which the Chamber should be aware. The first concerns Reliance, which was placed second in the tender process. In 1995, the IS raided the offices of Reliance and found that no fewer than 15 of its employees were illegal immigrants. The Minister will, I hope, be able to explain why, under those circumstances, Reliance was placed second.

As for LPI, IS officials will no doubt have alerted the Minister to the controversy in which that company became embroiled over stowaways on a Nigerian-flagged vessel in Lagos harbour some years ago. Equally, I feel confident that she will have been informed of the occasion a few years ago when LPI used four escorts for a removal to Sierra Leone. The immigration offender being removed was put under sedation by LPI and was delivered unconscious at Freetown. None of LPI's four escorts on that case was medically qualified. All four were detained in Freetown for a week for questioning.

I have no doubt that the Home Office will have on its files the latest accounts for LPI and will be aware that, as recently as the 1997 financial year, it appeared to be insolvent. When the Minister replies, I hope that she will be able to assure the Chamber that she has examined its latest accounts and can confirm a substantial increase in capital since the end of that financial year.

ASC is not insolvent. I am assured that it has never traded while insolvent, although no thanks for that are due to the Home Office, which has an appalling record of delays in payments and non-payments of invoices due to ASC.

In the past, ASC regularly had monthly meetings in Croydon. Almost every time, the issue at the top of the agenda was slow payment. Some of the invoices have been outstanding for four years before payment has been made. The delays have had nothing to do with queries on the content of those invoices. At one time, the debt owed by the Home Office to ASC was about £250,000.

In 1997, ASC was not paid anything for four months because of a Paymaster General dispute in Liverpool, yet, at the same time, it paid more than £90,000 in VAT on invoices for which it had not received a penny from the Home Office. Repeated requests to the IS did not result in payment.

ASC claims, for example, that, if it had been able to charge interest on late payment from the Home Office prior to November 1988 in the manner subsequently required by legislation, it would have been able to claim an extra £400,000. That is the extent of the inefficiency and muddle over finances into which the Home Office appears to have got itself over a period of years. I hope that that has been remedied.

There has been an equally unsatisfactory muddle over records that the IS is supposed to have maintained concerning the removal of immigration offenders. Mr. Southon has assured me that, whenever Members tabled questions about the number of people removed, the IS had to seek urgent answers from ASC because there were no in-house records of its own on which it could rely.

I turn to a particularly disturbing facet of the run-up to the tender offer. I am told that an LPI director, whose name I can provide to both the Minister and, if I am asked to do so, the NAO, regularly entertained IS staff at Harmondsworth. I have been given the names of the IS staff who were entertained and offered other inducements. I am assured that ASC is willing to provide an affidavit to support that allegation.

The IS officials who were entertained told ASC that they were looked after by LPI and asked whether ASC was willing to do the same. Specifically, they asked whether ASC would "weigh in too." Mr. Southon tells me that he refused point blank, but after he did so the work placed with ASC from Harmondsworth declined noticeably. I am unwilling—I am sure that the Minister will agree with this—to name in the Chamber officials who are the subject of those allegations, but I shall provide their names to the Minister and to the NAO if required to do so.

I have been alerted to reports that a former senior enforcement official at the IS has joined the board of LPI, since when that company appears to have gained favour, despite its modest track record and past inadequate capitalisation. I worked with that individual when I was at the Home Office and had no complaints about him. Nevertheless, it is said on the Home Office grapevine and among reputable home affairs press correspondents that, following that person's retirement, he secured for himself an unusual assignment in Russia, where, it is said, he produced a highly original guidance manual for clients about ways in which they might obtain entry into the UK with the minimum difficulty.

Two experienced journalists have related that story to me over the past year, but I did not feel that there was sufficient hard evidence from what I was told to raise the matter with Ministers then. In view of that official's involvement with LPI now, and LPI's success in the tender offer in the face of an apparent shut-out of so much of the ASC tender document, all those things now must surely merit closer investigation.

I have been informed that, on 2 March, at a meeting in Dover, the director of the immigration and nationality directorate, Ms Collins, was asked why the contract had been awarded to LPI instead of ASC. I understand that she seemed unaware that LPI had obtained the contract. That was more than two and a half months after LPI had been told of its success and a month and a half after ASC had been informed that it had lost out. I remind the Chamber of my past criticism of management performance among senior officials at the Home Office. That seems to be yet another clear example of an abysmal lack of communications.

I point out a frustrating catch-22 situation in which ASC has been placed following its failure to secure the contract. Mr. Quibell has told Mr. Southon that, where a carrier—for example, an airline or ferry company—brings an illegal immigrant into the UK, that carrier is now responsible for the removal of that immigration offender. Historically, the IS has arranged for the deportation and then invoiced the carrier for the costs. Mr. Quibell has said to Mr. Southon that, as from April this year, under new legislation, carriers have had to contract directly with escort companies for the removal of those offenders.

Mr. Quibell went on to say that, although the main IS contract had been awarded to LPI, he hoped that ASC would still carry out carriers liability removals under the new arrangements. To be able to provide that service to the carriers, ASC needs sponsorship from the IS to obtain airside passes, but Mr. Quibell has said that IS sponsorship of such airside clearance can no longer be made available. Thus, with that catch-22 situation, ASC finds that insult has been added to injury.

Under all those circumstances, I hope that the Minister will review as a matter of urgency the conduct of the tender procedure. I am sure that she will appreciate how important it is that ASC and the wider public receive an explanation of why there appear to be so many anomalies between what IS officials said on 26 January, what Mr. Quibell wrote in his letter of 21 February and the reality of the content of the ASC tender document.

1.18 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) for providing me with an opportunity to set the record straight about the award of the overseas escorting contract. I remember when I was in opposition asking a number of questions and taking an interest in that area of work. We now find ourselves in different roles on the subject.

It may be helpful if I say why it is necessary for us to escort some people overseas and why it was necessary to retender the contract. The immigration service and the immigration and nationality directorate remove about 39,000 people per year from the United Kingdom. Most people who are directed to leave accept that they must do so, but a small minority—around 600—must be escorted to ensure that they reach their destination. The majority of those escorts are for security reasons.

For more than six years, the overseas escort service has been provided by two suppliers: Airline Security Consultants and Loss Prevention International. ASC has provided the service for considerably longer than LPI, as the hon. Gentleman said. Owing to the new regulations specified in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, it will be necessary for escorting staff to be certified as fit and proper persons to conduct escorts under the arrangements set out in the Act. Existing contracts did not provide a satisfactory platform to achieve that; nor was it possible to demonstrate that the Home Office was getting best value for money or proper continuity of service by using those arrangements.

Consequently, and following an investigation and recommendation by the National Audit Office, it was decided to hold a competition last year for the provision of an overseas escorting service by one contractor. That was done on the basis of what the NAO had to say. Both ASC and LPI, which had previously been providing escort services, were aware that that would happen, and they participated in the competition.

The hon. Gentleman has made some allegations about LPI. I understand from the brief advice that I have taken that, at this stage, we have no knowledge of these accusations. However, I shall investigate his allegations and write to him.

The competition was run in accordance with the Public Services Contract Regulations 1993, using the restricted procedure. The contract was initially advertised in the Official Journal of the European Communities and also in Government Opportunities. As a result of the advertisement, eight companies were invited to submit tenders, although two of these subsequently withdrew from the competition. Of the six remaining tenders, LPI's was judged to be the best, in that it offered the most economically advantage proposal with both the best technical solution and best overall value for money to the taxpayer.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the sequence of events. Although it was hoped to announce the results of the tender on 20 December 1999, there were a number of practical issues to be resolved before the contract could be signed. These included confirmation that the insurance meeting our full requirements was in place. All matters were resolved and a decision was finally taken and notified to tenderers in writing on 17 January 2000. The contract was finally signed on 8 March. As the hon. Gentleman knows from his past experience and from his present position in the House, such decisions are taken by officials and Ministers are informed. I wish to make it clear that I had no part in the decision-making process.

The hon. Gentleman has suggested that the competition for the contract was not handled properly. I shall carefully examine his remarks when they appear in Hansard tomorrow. I can say only that, from the information that is before me, the procedures were fully complied with under the Public Services Contract Regulations 1993. The competition also had independent oversight from the Home Office procurement unit and the Treasury Solicitor, and both are completely satisfied with the process. That is important because those bodies are in place to make checks and balances. The hon. Gentleman will know that all our procurement procedures are subject to audit.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned, as has ASC, that the company does not believe that the tender documents were properly scrutinised. There was the example of staff training. I am advised that the training proposals submitted by ASC with the tender were inadequate. It was only at a subsequent meeting on 26 January 2000 that ASC suggested that the training proposals were only indicative and represented one week of a programme of several weeks. It was alleged by ASC that the tender had not been read properly, but it was unable to show in its documentation any details about the further expansion of the one-week example into a full programme.

Mr. Wardle

I am acutely aware that I have taken more than my share of time, but may I say that I fully understand that the Minister was not involved in the procedure? I hope that she will find time to study the contracts, because that is what I shall be asking the Comptroller and Auditor General to do as well. I have no idea whether he will do that, but it would be a great help if the hon. Lady were to examine them.

Mrs. Roche

I shall examine what the hon. Gentleman has said when his remarks appear in the record.

The evaluation process cannot be expected to take account of things which might or might not be intended. It can take account only of the contents of the documentation.

The hon. Gentleman has raised extremely serious matters, and I want to deal with them in the time that is available to me. He implies that there has been some misconduct in the relationship between IND officials and ASC and LPI. Similar implications were contained in a letter from ASC's solicitors dated 7 March, in which it is alleged that two members of staff had been socialising with LPI directors. I take such allegations extremely seriously. The two members of staff concerned deny the implications absolutely.

We asked the solicitors to provide specific details so that the matter could be investigated. To date, more than two months later, they have not done so, and I take great exception to that. If the hon. Gentleman is able to provide specific examples, I will ensure that there is an investigation. As I have said, these are serious allegations.

Mention has been made of a retired director of the immigration service. Again, serious allegations were made by the hon. Gentleman. I am informed that the retired director's appointment had no direct bearing on the decision to award LPI the contract. He did not attend any of the meetings with LPI and made no contact with officials responsible for the procurement process. As I have said, it was run under the 1993 regulations.

The hon. Gentleman made other allegations, which I heard for the first time. He repeated gossip. These are serious matters to raise on what is effectively the Floor of the House. As he is entitled to do, he raised them with the protection of privilege. I will consider the allegations. If he has any evidence to show, I will ensure that a proper investigation is conducted.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned late payment and the relevant legislation. I am responsible for it because I campaigned for its introduction when in opposition. It was one of the measures that I took through the House when I had the privilege to be a Department of Trade and Industry Minister. The hon. Gentleman will recall that I was critical of late payment by government, and made it a feature of what I was doing in opposition. I have in mind particularly the record of the previous Government, of whom the hon. Gentleman was a member. I am assured that payment practices, which were not good in the past, have improved dramatically. That is important.

It is important also for us to place arrangements for escorting people away from the United Kingdom on a better contractual basis. That is what we have sought to do. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the knowledge of senior management in terms of the contract. It was known at senior levels of management that the contract had been placed. The hon. Gentleman suggested that, in regard to accreditation, ASC was placed in not as good a position as the other companies. That is certainly not the case. On the basis of the information that I have seen, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House on that point.

Given what I have seen so far and what has been presented to me—it was seen by the relevant bodies, including the Treasury—everything was done to meet the bona fides of the process. I shall carefully examine the record to ascertain what was said. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman as soon as possible. However, it is incumbent on him and on those who have provided him with information to provide that information, rather than merely making allegations—

Mr. Barry Jones (in the Chair)

Order. Time is up

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