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Damian Green MP: Why don't we know the full facts about immigration?

Green_damian Damian Green is shadow immigration minister and responds here to the attempt by Phil Woolas, the minister he shadows, to prevent publication of the Office for National Statistics' immigration figures.

The main focus of interest in the latest immigration figures was the fact that one in nine of those in the UK were not born here. And the response of the Immigration Minister? He is berating the Office for National Statistics for revealing the figure! There are times when you cannot avoid the journalistic cliché, “you couldn’t make it up.”

Ministers are puzzled why the public does not believe any of their rhetoric about the immigration system becoming more efficient.

Let me help them. One big reason why the public does not believe “good news” about immigration is that even before Phil Woolas started bullying the ONS he and his colleagues had an active policy of not allowing difficult questions to be answered.

To illustrate just how bad things are I have been looking at the answers to my own Parliamentary Questions to Ministers over the past few months. Donald Rumsfeld famously distinguished between known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Jacqui Smith and her team have created a whole new category; unknown should-be-knowns.

Let’s start with foreign national prisoners. It was the problem with the number who were not removed at the end of their sentence that led to the downfall of Charles Clarke as Home Secretary, so you would have thought the Home Office would be very concerned with this statistic. I asked how many foreign prisoners convicted of serious crimes such as drug importing, violence or a sex offence, had been granted bail. The answer: “Information relating to the number of foreign national prisoners subject to deportation action who have completed their custodial sentence and been released on bail is not centrally collated at present.” Why on earth not?

Moving on to illegal foreign workers, as a subject which is extremely sensitive in the present climate, there is just as much ignorance. I asked how many on-the-spot fines had been imposed on employers of illegal labour, and how many illegal immigrants had been removed because of this. The answer; “The UK Border Agency does not hold data in the form requested on those encountered working illegally that have been removed from the UK.” So we cannot now how effective these much-trumpeted on-the-spot fines have been.

Most recently I have been receiving a large number of complaints about the standard of decision-making in issuing visas in the countries which provide most immigrants to the UK. So I asked how many visas had to be revoked after being issued in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa and Australia. Bizarrely, the Government can provide the information for India and Bangladesh but not for the other three countries. Surely we must be devoting a good deal of effort to making sure we have decent information about travel to and from Pakistan? If Ministers are telling the truth, apparently we don’t have this basic information.

As I trawl back through the answers given in the course of 2008, the picture becomes even clearer. Ministers don’t collect statistics on the numbers refused entry on health grounds, they don’t know how many family visitors overstay their visas, they don’t record data on trafficking victims, and they don’t know how often Heathrow’s detention facilities are full. However they are particularly inventive in providing reasons for this all-encompassing ignorance:

  • “There is no estimate…”
  • “Provision of a reply would be at disproportionate cost”
  • ”I am unable to disclose details…for reasons of commercial confidentiality…”
  • “The UK Border Agency has not kept central records…”

This adds up either to a failure of management or a cover-up on a massive scale. I veer between the two options depending on how charitable I am feeling at the time. What is extraordinary is that despite the Government’s obsession with form-filling and box-ticking useful information is so hard to come by. I should say in fairness that this is not confined to the immigration side of the Home Office. Next time you hear a Minister pronounce on how useful DNA evidence is in convicting criminals, remember that the Minister in charge of the DNA database had had to confess in written answers that there is no data on how many convictions have been based on DNA evidence, and indeed that the DNA database itself does not record convictions.

We have the worst of all worlds. Public servants spend too much time filling in forms recording what they do, but the management information needed to run the immigration system effectively is not available. Anyone of a cynical bent would assume that the information is not collected because if it were available it would often be embarrassing to Ministers. And when it is available, Ministers don’t want it published, even by independent statisticians. What a way to run one of most important policy areas.      


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