Licensing Act 2003 (UEFA European Football Championship Licensing Hours) Order 2024

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Excerpts
Friday 24th May 2024

(3 weeks, 6 days ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom
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That the draft Order laid before the House on 8 May be approved.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, this summer the UEFA European Football Championship will take place in Germany. Happily, both the England and Scotland men’s national teams have qualified to take part. Therefore, I am before your Lordships today to propose the extension of licensing hours if either England or Scotland, or indeed both, reach the semi-final on 9 and/or 10 July and the final on 14 July.

The Secretary of State is allowed, under Section 172 of the Licensing Act 2003, to make such an order to relax opening hours for licensed premises to mark occasions

“of exceptional international, national, or local significance”.

As I hope your Lordships will agree, the progression of England and Scotland, or both, to the late stages of the competition would represent just such an occasion. Should that happen, people will want to come together in celebration and support of the home nation teams.

The extension will apply to premises licences and club premises certificates in England and Wales, which license the sale of alcohol for consumption on the premises. These premises will be allowed to remain open until 1 am without having to notify the licensing authority via a temporary event notice, as would usually be the case. This contingent order only covers sales for consumption on the premises after 11 pm. It does not cover premises that only sell alcohol for consumption off the premises, such as off-licences and supermarkets. Premises that provide late-night refreshment—the supply of hot food or hot drinks to the public between the hours of 11 pm and 5 am—but do not sell alcohol for consumption on the premises will not be covered by the order. Such premises will only be able to provide late-night refreshment until 1 am if their existing licence already permits this.

The Home Office conducted a public consultation, which ran for 12 weeks. Over 80% of respondents agreed with the extension on the three proposed dates and that it would apply to England and Wales. The consultation received responses from numerous trade organisations that were in favour. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the police are not in favour of extending licensing hours, given the potential for increased disorder. Police deployments and resources are of course operational matters, but I am sure that forces will, as they have in the past, put in place plans to minimise the risk. It is also worth pointing out that this is a limited two-hour extension to licensing hours, which is a proportionate approach to mark these events.

I will make two further points before concluding. First, because licensing is a devolved matter, if either England or Scotland is successful in reaching either the semi-final or the final, the extension will only apply to licensed venues in England and Wales. Secondly, if neither of the teams reaches the semi-final, normal licensing hours will apply on 9 and 10 July. If either or both teams reach the semi-final, but neither team is in the final, normal licensing hours will apply on 14 July. There will be great interest in the upcoming tournament, which is why we have brought forward this order. Finally, I wish both the England and Scotland teams the very best of luck. I beg to move.

Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, we support the SI. I will make just one suggestion to the Minister—that he make sure that the Prime Minister is fully aware of the contents, to avoid any further embarrassment in the future.

The other point that I would like to make is that I think that the Government are making a proportionate response. It is an important relaxation of licensing laws in very particular circumstances. I join the noble Lord in wishing both England and Scotland all the very best in the tournament in a few weeks’ time.

I also take this opportunity, since this is the last time I will be speaking, to thank the Minister for his co-operation in everything that he has done. I thank former Ministers who are also present, too, for the work that they did, as well as others on other Benches. I very much appreciated that. I am glad that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, is here. I have been very pleased to receive the numerous legal representations and to be informed how that all works, including understanding the difference between “minor” and “more than minor”, if he remembers.

The serious point is that there is much division, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hazarika, said in her excellent maiden speech. There are political differences, but there are also many things that we can provide for the benefit of the country by working together, which is what we all wish to see. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, for the way he has conducted himself with his fellow Ministers. I wonder if he would be so good as to pass that on to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, who before she became Government Chief Whip was also an excellent Minister. It would be remiss of me not to finish with that.

I have greatly appreciated the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, has conducted his affairs. He is exemplary of how a government Minister should operate. Many of the Bills he has been involved with have been extremely difficult, and were I to be in his position—you never know—I suspect that others would turn round on me many of the questions that I have asked and I would then appreciate some of the difficulty in delivering a policy that we all agree needs careful attention. With that, I will finish, but I again thank the Minister very much for the way he has conducted himself. I appreciate the way in which he has conducted government business, as I know do my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and other noble Lords who have worked with him.

Lord Addington Portrait Lord Addington (LD)
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My Lords, the measure is very reasonable, and having an extra bit of time for celebration for a major event sets a good precedent. I wish both England and Scotland well—it is the wrong shaped ball for me, but hey, you cannot have everything.

I thank everybody here who has come together around certain issues and causes across the House, throughout the entire Parliament, to achieve things. It has been very valuable. I hope that nobody here gets bitten by a dog when delivering a leaflet.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their support for this Motion, which, as noble Lords have said, is very important. As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, much of the business of the Home Office is difficult, so it gives me pleasure that my last outing basically enables people to get properly on the lash—please drink responsibly. I wish England and Scotland all the best.

I have a few people I want to thank. I thank my noble friend Lord Murray of Blidworth, who did a lot of the heavy lifting, some months ago. His work was very much appreciated by me. I also extend my thanks to noble Lords opposite, and to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Ponsonby, in particular, who have always dealt with me with great courtesy and respect. Together we have achieved a great deal, particularly in some tricky areas around national security. I extend my thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, who, frankly, saved my bacon on a very tricky Bill, which I have not forgotten; I appreciate it.

On a personal note, I thank my private office at the Home Office, which is very ably led by my private secretary, Mya Eastwood, who is amazing. The Home Office comes in for a lot of criticism on a regular basis, but, like an iceberg, 90% of what happens is below the surface. It is done extremely efficiently by a dedicated bunch of public servants. I hold them in very high regard and think that they do us all a great service in keeping the country safe and keeping many of the things that we rely on as a matter of routine happening, and for that they do not get enough credit. I finish by saying that I wish them all the best, and keep up the good work.

Motion agreed.

Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (Risk of Being Drawn into Terrorism) (Revised Guidance) Regulations 2024

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Excerpts
Friday 24th May 2024

(3 weeks, 6 days ago)

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Moved by
Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom
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That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 7 May be approved.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, this instrument relates to Prevent in Scotland. After the approval of both Chambers last year, the Prevent duty guidance for specified authorities in England and Wales came into effect on 31 December 2023. Prevent is one of the pillars of Contest, the United Kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy. The aim of Prevent is to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. It also extends to supporting the rehabilitation and disengagement of those already involved in terror. Put simply, Prevent is an early intervention programme to help keep us all safe. To do so effectively, it requires front-line sectors across society, including education, healthcare, local authorities, criminal justice agencies and the police, to support this mission.

This is why we have the Prevent duty, set out in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. It sits alongside established duties on professionals to protect people from a range of other harms, such as involvement in gangs or physical and sexual exploitation. The Prevent duty helps to ensure that people who are susceptible to radicalisation are offered timely interventions before it is too late. Of course, none of this is easy. There is no single track to a person being radicalised. Many factors can, either alone or combined, lead someone to subscribe to an extremist ideology, which in some cases can lead into terrorism. These factors often include exposure to radicalising influences, real and perceived grievances and an individual’s own susceptibility. The Prevent duty guidance exists to help those working in front-line sectors navigate these challenging situations. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act requires specified authorities to have regard to this guidance.

It is challenging, but we must always strive for excellence, so the Government are committed to ensuring that Prevent is effective. The Independent Review of Prevent was published on 8 February 2023 and in it Sir William Shawcross made 34 recommendations, all of which were accepted by the Home Secretary. Last year, we implemented the Prevent duty guidance for England and Wales, responding to several of Sir William’s recommendations, and the updated guidance for Scotland, which is the subject of this statutory instrument, was issued on 7 May and will ensure that Scotland, too, can benefit from updated guidance and best practice. The Home Office worked at pace with the Scottish Government to ensure that the updated Prevent duty guidance for Scotland is closely tailored to the Scottish context.

The guidance has updated Prevent’s objectives to make it clear that Prevent should tackle the ideological causes of terrorism. It sets out requirements more clearly articulating the need for high-quality training so that risk can be identified and managed. It provides an updated threat picture and gives details of the strategic security threat check, which helps Prevent recognise and respond to the greatest threats. This will ensure that Prevent is well equipped to counter the threats that we face and the ideologies underpinning them.

As well as responding to the recommendations in the Independent Review of Prevent, the guidance reflects current best practice. It supports and exemplifies the excellent work that we know takes place across the country to help keep us safe and prevent people from becoming terrorists or from supporting terrorism. The guidance will assist specified authorities in Scotland to understand how best to comply with the duty. It includes details of the capabilities that they should have to be able to identify and manage risk. It also advises on how they can help create an environment where the ideologies that are used to radicalise people into terrorism are challenged and not permitted to flourish.

People with responsibilities relevant to the delivery of Prevent were consulted on the guidance. A range of key Scottish Government partners were engaged throughout the development of the updated guidance; their feedback has been positive. The Government have been working closely with these partners to roll out the guidance and support its implementation.

Subject to the approval of this House, the statutory instrument will bring the new guidance into effect on 19 August 2024, replacing the 2015 guidance. It will strengthen the Prevent system and help us to keep safe. I beg to move.

Lord West of Spithead Portrait Lord West of Spithead (Lab)
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I stand briefly to say that the Intelligence and Security Committee fully supports this.

Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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We support the extension. It is important to highlight that this statutory instrument simply extends the guidance to Scotland. Although counterterrorism legislation is a reserved matter, the delivery of the Prevent programme is for the devolved Administrations, so this is therefore necessary with respect to Scotland. I have only one question: why 19 August? We wondered why it could not be immediate. Is there a particular reason for that? Notwithstanding that, we fully support the SI.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I thank both noble Lords for their support. Given that this is my second-to-last outing from the Dispatch Box, I am delighted to be able to answer that question: I have not the faintest idea.

Motion agreed.

Arrests and Prison Capacity

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Excerpts
Wednesday 22nd May 2024

(4 weeks, 1 day ago)

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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, public safety must at all times be our primary concern. The fact that we now have a shortage of prison spaces and that these contingency measures were even considered is worrying. The Government have said they have not put the measures in place this time, but of course this shortage of prison spaces has been building for a long time and is having a knock-on effect throughout the criminal justice system. I agree with the need for contingency planning, even when the outcome is worrying. Can the Minister tell me, within contingency planning, what would be the priorities for the arrest or non-arrest of suspects?

In conclusion, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, for the assiduous and courteous way in which he has dealt with many questions, debates and lots of legislation. He must be one of the most hard-working Members of this House, and we appreciate it.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord very much indeed for those remarks. They are very kind, and I am very grateful for them.

Obviously, public safety is the Government’s priority. We fully expect the police to arrest anyone who has committed a serious crime and poses a risk to the public. Police chiefs have been very clear today that officers will arrest anyone they need to in order to keep the public safe. The NPCC has suggested that, to its knowledge from daily engagement with forces, no arrests have been delayed because of the impact of Operation Early Dawn.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his acknowledgement that contingency planning is obviously a necessity. Frankly, any serious organisation should prepare for contingencies all the time. There were some strange remarks relating to that in the House of Commons. I think it is odd that was perhaps highlighted as a thing.

I acknowledge the comments about prison capacity, but we have made significant progress with regards to building capacity, which I am happy to talk about.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I echo the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. Although I do not normally shadow this portfolio, I recognise the Minister’s hard work.

Groups such as the Howard League have repeatedly said that sentences of 12 months or less are associated with higher reoffending rates. Given that our prisons are dangerously close to capacity, despite what the Minister has said, what steps are the Government are taking to reduce short-term sentences, which would have the dual benefit of decreasing prison populations and lowering recidivism rates?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness very much for her remarks, which I very much appreciate. Obviously, much of the debate around sentencing involved a Bill that we may or may not see—we probably will not—so I will talk a bit about what we have done on prison building. We have delivered the largest prison-building programme since the Victorian era, with 10,000 of the 20,000 additional places to be delivered by the end of 2025. We have already delivered about 5,900 of the 20,000 places. Last October, a series of measures was announced that will help to ease the pressure further. I mentioned the Sentencing Bill and we will also further the 20,000 portfolio. In October last year, we announced an investment of £30 million to acquire the land we need to build more prison places, and we are intent on delivering an additional 460 RDCs across the estate. There is a considerable amount of work going on. I accept of course that there are short-term capacity problems, but that is the point of having contingency planning.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, the Minister referred to short-term capacity problems, but we have a long-term situation, extending over decades across many different Governments, of very high numbers of people in prison in the UK. The current rate of imprisonment in England and Wales is 146 people per 100,000 of population. By comparison, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany and the Nordic states all have a rate of imprisonment of less than 90 prisoners per 100,000 of population. Surely, the Government being forced to request chief constables to pause non-priority arrests and operations is a reflection of the fact that we have just kept shoving people into jail, without giving the jails the capacity to rehabilitate. That is causing damaging impacts on communities, prisoners’ families and prison workers, as well as on the prisoners, who will nearly all be released back into the community eventually. Is it not time to look again at the continual push to lock up more people, when, as the noble Baroness on the Lib Dem Benches said, there is so much evidence that that is not working?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The noble Baroness raised some very interesting points, which I will address in a second. To be clear, we have not asked police chiefs to stop arresting people, as I have already said. On the impact on communities, I suspect that criminals roaming free probably has a lot more impact on local communities than having them inside. On the international comparisons, I am not sure how we achieve them or draw any meaningful conclusions from them. The fact is that we make our own laws, which is what we are elected to do. Perhaps it will be a Green Party policy that we should let criminals out—good luck.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. This Bill will make it possible for Irish nationals who have been resident in the UK for five years to become British citizens in a far easier way than is currently possible. Before discussing the detail of the measures, I recognise the interest of, and work done in the past by, many noble Lords on this subject, most notably the Bill’s sponsor today, the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore. He will be aware that following the introduction of this Bill by the right honourable Member for Belfast East in the other place, the Government have supported its underlying principles. I am glad to say that our full support for it was confirmed following amendments passed in Committee.

Irish nationals can currently work, study and vote in the UK and are usually deemed to be settled from the moment they enter the UK. The common travel area arrangements for Irish nationals are now set out formally in statute in the Immigration Act 1971, which provides protections for the ability of Irish nationals to enter and live in the United Kingdom without needing a grant of immigration leave to enter or remain. This relationship is reciprocated by the Irish Government in regard to British citizens entering Ireland, and this strengthens the relationship between our two countries.

Irish nationals who are resident in the UK must currently complete the naturalisation process to gain British citizenship. There are many requirements associated with naturalisation, such as a period of residence, which is usually five years, and this is replicated in this Bill. However, many of the immigration-related requirements for naturalisation are designed for those who require formal permission to enter and live in the UK and are not applicable to Irish nationals. Equally, the UK has a unique relationship with Ireland, as noted eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, and the close historical links, geographical proximity and shared institutions between the two countries mean that those who could make use of this Bill would, in our view, already have a sufficient knowledge of language and life in the UK, which would be further reinforced by five years’ qualifying residence. As such, being expected to pass the Life in the UK test or to demonstrate competence in English is inconsistent with the reality.

The Bill as first introduced was limited in scope to Irish nationals born in Ireland after 31 December 1948 who were resident solely in Northern Ireland. The Government are delighted that the Bill before your Lordships today is now marginally broader in scope and more inclusive, and we should note the constructive conversations that led to these changes and have characterised the Bill’s progress.

Following amendments, the route to British citizenship will now be available to Irish nationals regardless of how they became Irish, not just those born in Ireland. Secondly, it will not have a requirement that an Irish national must have been born after 31 December 1948, meaning that there are no age restrictions and all Irish nationals may make use of the Bill. Thirdly, qualifying residency will be in any part of the United Kingdom, not just in Northern Ireland. This reflects the important consideration that becoming a British citizen is about a tie to the whole of the United Kingdom, not just one constituent part of it, even if the Bill may be expected to be used proportionately more in Northern Ireland. That is the right approach.

I turn to the specific details of the Bill. Clause 1 will insert a new section, namely Section 4AA, into the British Nationality Act 1981, which will allow an Irish national to be registered as a British citizen if they make an application and satisfy the requirements. To qualify under new Section 4AA, the person must have been in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the period of five years ending with the date of their application. They must not have been absent from the United Kingdom for more than 450 days in the five-year period ending with the date of their application, and they must not have been absent from the UK for more than 90 days in the 12-month period ending with the date of their application. They must also not have been in breach of the immigration laws at any time in the five-year period ending with the date of their application. Of course, the vast majority of Irish nationals already comply with this. The Secretary of State will, in special circumstances, be able to treat a person who has applied for registration under this section as satisfying the requirements, even if they did not fully satisfy them.

Clause 2 sets out the extent and commencement of the Bill. It extends to England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the British Overseas Territories, in keeping with the same extent of the British Nationality Act 1981, which it amends. It will come into force by commencement regulations made by the Secretary of State at a later date.

All speakers have made reference to the potential cost to applicants of this registration route. This is currently being considered. The Home Office undertakes an annual review of its migration and border services, and unit costs for this route will be calculated in line with the fees set as part of that exercise. The Minister for Legal Migration and the Border has committed to further discussions with the right honourable Member for Belfast East in this regard. However, nothing substantive has yet been decided on this matter. The Minister also noted the strength of views expressed in the other place on the issue of fees, and I will ensure that he is similarly made aware of the comments made in this House today.

Noble Lords have also queried when this registration route will be available. For a commencement date to be set, the Bill would need to be introduced by a commencement order and, were there to be any fees, there would need to be fees regulations. The Home Office is currently working to design processes and IT systems to enable decision-making on applications in this route. The commencement of this registration route will, of course, need to be fitted in with respect to the Government’s overall priorities.

I am pleased to say that there is considerable support for this Bill within Parliament and among the public. I hope that noble Lords will agree on the importance of the legislation. With this in mind, I can assure the House that I have listened carefully, as ever, to all the contributions made today. I look forward to continued engagement with noble Lords as the Bill goes forward.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, again for introducing this Bill. I commend the work done to ensure the smooth passage in the other place by the right honourable member for Belfast East and the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border. I commend this Bill to the House.

Illegal Migration Act: Northern Ireland

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Excerpts
Wednesday 15th May 2024

(1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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Can the Minister confirm that, if this Belfast judgment stands, we will be in the chaotic and damaging situation of asylum seekers having different levels of protection in different parts of the UK? How on earth have the Government let it come to this? What assessment has been made of that discrepancy in the movement of asylum seekers across the UK?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, I start by expressing the Government’s disappointment at this judgment. We continue to believe that the policy is lawful, that our approach is compatible with international law and, specifically, that the Illegal Migration Act proposals are compatible with Article 2 of the Windsor Framework. The Government will take all steps to defend their position, including through an appeal. We have consistently made clear that the provisions in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement referred to in the Windsor Framework were developed specifically against the background of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. They do not concern, and should not be brought into, the complex debate on illegal migration.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, does the Minister still acknowledge that the European Convention on Human Rights is an essential part of the Good Friday/ Belfast agreement? In that context, will he reconfirm the Government’s commitment to upholding the rights of all people residing in Northern Ireland?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I have made it very clear—but I will say it again—that all the provisions in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement referred to in the Windsor Framework were developed specifically against the background of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. They do not concern, and should not be brought into, the complex debate on illegal migration.

Lord Dodds of Duncairn Portrait Lord Dodds of Duncairn (DUP)
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My Lords, whatever the rights and wrongs of people’s views on the Rwanda Act or the Illegal Migration Act, it has always been a clear principle that immigration law is a matter for application on a UK-wide basis. This is the latest in a string of rulings in the High Court in Belfast that says that Acts of Parliament not only are incompatible with the human rights convention but can be struck down and disapplied by the Windsor Framework agreed by the Parliament of this United Kingdom. Surely the Government have to deal with the fundamental problem. They said in the Safeguarding the Union Command Paper that the Windsor Framework did not deal with anything other than trade or goods—that is clearly and totally false: there will be a people border if this continues. Will the Minister deal with the fundamental, underlying problem of the continued supremacy of EU law over vast swathes of the economy and other areas of society in Northern Ireland?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The noble Lord makes the very good point that immigration is a reserved matter and that the Government have consistently applied immigration law on a UK-wide basis. This judgment relates to the Illegal Migration Act, so it does not impact our planning or operations for Rwanda. I am afraid that I cannot speculate as to the other matters that he raised.

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Portrait Lord Hannan of Kingsclere (Con)
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Will my noble friend the Minister follow through on the implications of what he just said? As the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, pointed out, the Windsor Framework was sold in this House and in the other House as something that would apply only to pork pies and technical standards. If it is now being interpreted that the Windsor Framework can be used to strike down primary legislation passed in our Parliament, surely that is not operating as we understood it. Does it not call into question the whole basis of it and make the case for a fundamental renegotiation of the entire agreement?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, as I stated in my original Answer, which I will repeat to my noble friend, the Government intend to take all steps to defend their position, including through an appeal. Of course, these are the matters that will be debated in that appeal.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, long before the Windsor Framework, there was the Good Friday agreement, which was hard won, not least by people from all communities in Northern Ireland. Can the noble Lord confirm that if this decision of Mr Justice Humphreys in the Belfast High Court is upheld in our Supreme Court, the Government will respect that decision, protect the Good Friday agreement—which is an international treaty signed up to by this country and the Republic of Ireland and supported by our closest ally, the United States—and protect the peace and human rights in Northern Ireland?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, again, I was very clear at the start; we have consistently made it clear that the provisions in the Good Friday agreement, referred to in the Windsor Framework, were developed specifically against the background of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. That position has not changed.

Lord Rogan Portrait Lord Rogan (UUP)
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My Lords, the Minister will recall that last week in this House I raised my concerns about the Irish Government’s plan to mobilise 100 Garda officers to stop asylum seekers crossing into the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland, in effect, creating a hard border on the island. I asked the Minister directly to clarify what His Majesty’s Government were doing to remedy this situation, and his response was that he did not think it was appropriate to

“comment on the internal policies of another country”.—[Official Report, 9/5/24; col. 315.]

Given the potential consequences for Northern Ireland of the Belfast High Court judgment, does he now believe that it is time for the Government in general and the Prime Minister in particular to prioritise the well-being of the people of the Province of Northern Ireland over the shallow quest for voters in Great Britain?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I would go back to my original answer of last week: I still do not think it is appropriate to comment on the internal policies of another country. As I have repeatedly said—and as I will continue to say as often as I am asked—the Government will take all steps to defend their position, including through an appeal. I would also say that this is not about prioritising one part of our country over another. It is about maintaining the UK’s border integrity.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, the Illegal Migration Act is the basis on which the Home Office has any authority to accommodate children. I understand from my noble friend that the Government are appealing, but is the Act disapplied and, if it is, what does that do to the authority of the Home Office to accommodate any unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Northern Ireland?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, obviously the Government are still seeking advice on all aspects of what the judgment means, but we will be appealing. I should also say that the final order will not be handed down for another two weeks, so an appeal cannot be lodged until after that final order is handed down.

Lord Dubs Portrait Lord Dubs (Lab)
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My Lords, in the meantime, what is the position of asylum seekers in Northern Ireland who no longer come under the Illegal Migration Act? Are they able to apply for asylum?

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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No, I do not believe they are. I do not think this has any impact on, for example, the safety of Rwanda or relocation to Rwanda under existing legislation. As noble Lords will be aware, migrants currently in Northern Ireland can be relocated under the NABA.

Lord Bellingham Portrait Lord Bellingham (Con)
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My Lords, the Minister said that the Government were going to appeal the decision when it is finalised. How quickly could that be brought on and, if indeed the Government lost the appeal, could they then legislate?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I do not understand or know anything about the workings of the court processes, so I am afraid I cannot answer that question.

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain (Lab)
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My Lords, I understand that the Minister is a Home Office Minister. However, the noble Lord, Lord Caine, will be able to educate him on the fact that anybody who knows the primary legislation implementing the Belfast/Good Friday agreement will not be in the least surprised by the High Court judgment.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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That may be the case, but, as I have repeatedly said, the Government intend to appeal the decision. Until that appeal is heard, I do not know that there is much else to say on this.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, the Illegal Migration Act gives Ministers the power to detain those who have arrived in small boats. My understanding is that that is still not yet in force after a number of months—since last July. What prevents anybody who has arrived on a small boat since last July then travelling to Northern Ireland?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, we do not believe that this will induce people to go to Northern Ireland. The cohort we are detaining has been considered under existing legislation, so those who are part of that cohort can and will be removed to Rwanda. There would be no benefit to their going to Northern Ireland to avoid this removal. The NABA cohort is anyone who arrived in the UK on or after 1 January 2022 and who received a notice of intent prior to 29 June 2023, which informed them that their asylum claim may be considered inadmissible and that they may be removed to Rwanda.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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My Lords, until any appeals in relation to the Northern Ireland cases are concluded, will the Minister undertake not to commence Section 57 of the Illegal Migration Act, concerning age assessment, which has now been disapplied in Northern Ireland?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I cannot make that commitment. I will come back as and when I have more to say on the subject.

Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Morrow (DUP)
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My Lords, during the passage of the Rwanda Bill, my party flagged up these concerns. Of course, we were told that we were wrong. It now transpires that we were right. Surely the quick and efficient way to satisfactorily resolve this issue is an urgent but short piece of legislation that asserts without doubt that we control our own borders. Does the Minister agree?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The noble Lord makes an interesting point but, as I say, the first step in this process is to appeal the judgment. I am sure that all other considerations will then be taken as to what might happen in the future.

Russia

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Excerpts
Tuesday 14th May 2024

(1 month, 1 week ago)

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Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, I associate myself with many of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. I agree with what he said. These Benches also welcome the Statement repeat and support the Government’s actions. I too pay tribute to the security and intelligence services, which remain vigilant in keeping us safe from foreign malign activity. It is of course a very serious matter when we have to take action against so-called diplomats—those who are abusing not only the protections that diplomatic conventions afford them but their position within the United Kingdom—but actions have been necessary.

I note that the Home Secretary indicated in the Statement that this was the first legislation under the National Security Act on which the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and I, along with my noble friend and others, worked closely with the Minister. He was very open and worked on a cross-party basis. When it comes to national security and keeping our country safe, we are of the view—I think the Minister agrees—that this is not a partisan issue, no matter what the Prime Minister may have said this week. I pay tribute to the Minister for his work on that, and it is rewarding to see that the measures we put in place on a cross-party basis have been activated. That demonstrates to any country around the world that government and Parliament are united in ensuring that our people will be safe.

As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, indicated, we should of course expect a tit-for-tat response. What advice are His Majesty’s Government giving to the wide network of UK journalists and other nationals still operating in Russia in the genuine field of culture, trade and people-to-people relations? I have said repeatedly that our concern is not with the people-to-people relations between the UK and Russia but with the Putin regime. What vigilance will they therefore have to have, and what advice are the Government giving?

Concerning the wider issues on sanctions and assets, as indicated in the Statement, I think I have spoken to almost all the sanctions that Parliament has approved and that the Government have put in place. We support them all, of course, but unfortunately there are certain areas that are vulnerable to sanctions circumvention. What actions will the Government now take on those who are actively circumventing the sanctions cited within the Statement? This includes, for example, shadow fleets that ship the oil exports from Russia, which means that Russia is continuing to make a profit out of the war. It means those within metal trading and within the financial relationships that the UK has with the Gulf. When it comes to the assets, the Statement indicated that the £22 billion of assets that we have frozen is from October. That is six months ago so, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked, what is the live figure of the assets?

The Home Secretary said in response to questions in the House of Commons that

“no one has seized or liquidated Russian assets”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/5/24; col. 588.]

But we know that that is not the case, and not just within those that Ukraine has. What is the exact legal blockage to the UK seizing assets that we have frozen? The Foreign Secretary replied to me in this Chamber a number of weeks ago that he was frustrated with the delays. What are the delays and why have the Government not presented legislation? If legislation is required to be passed, I am certain that the Front Benches will be supportive of that move and that it can be expedited through Parliament.

I was reading this week that the EU now has mechanisms in place to charge the interest of those frozen assets, with an estimate of up to €8 billion. One estimate of the £20 billion frozen by the UK Government could mean, depending on how it is invested, that it could accrue interest of up to £1 billion over this year. Why is that not being seized for immediate use?

Can the Minister confirm to me that the mechanisms the Government have put in place to allow for frozen assets to be sold to UK businesses or individuals can never be used for them to make a profit out of any frozen assets? I understand that the mechanisms will allow bodies to buy a frozen asset but not to sell it until it is unfrozen. But it could accrue interest, so I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate that that could never be the case.

Finally, given that we are likely to see further actions from the Putin regime—we see today’s very worrying news from the Georgian Parliament and we see it in the Balkans—and, as the noble Lord said, from the China regime, now is the time for the Government to give proactive briefings to Opposition Front Benches on likely or possible future threats. We had that when we were tackling the Daesh problem but we need it now when it comes to China and Russia, and I hope the Minister can respond positively to that point.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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I thank both noble Lords for their remarks. I will briefly outline a few highlights, as it were, from the Statement given by the Home Secretary last week, because it has been a few days and we need to tease out and probe a few important points. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary pointed out in the other place that the Prime Minister said in Poland last month that we are at a “turning point” for European security. With our allies, we will stand firm in the face of the Russian threat to the UK and our way of life—it is worth restating that for the record.

On the actions we have taken, as is well understood, we have expelled the Russian defence attaché, who was an undeclared military intelligence officer. We will remove diplomatic premises status from several Russian properties in the UK, including Seacox Heath, which is a Russian-owned property in Sussex, and the trade and defence section in Highgate. We believe they have been used for intelligence purposes. We are imposing new restrictions on Russian diplomatic visas, including capping the length of time Russian diplomats can spend in the UK.

As reported on Friday 26 April, five individuals have been charged in connection with an investigation into alleged offences under the National Security Act, which both noble Lords referred to. They rather pre-empted what I was going to say, because I obviously want to thank all noble Lords who were involved in the successful passage of what is proving to be critical legislation. It is a good example of working together, and it gives me an opportunity to thank the security services. This rather proves the point that there is co-ordinating action on behalf of the security services, the police, other government agencies and of course the Home Office, in dealing with the threats we all face. I am grateful to all the people who work so hard on our behalf in those various organisations.

I will go into the sanctions in a moment, but first I will repeat the headlines that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary mentioned in his speech. We have sanctioned over 1,700 individuals, over 90% of the Russian banking sector and over 130 oligarchs and family members, with a combined net worth of around £147 billion at the time of the invasion. As of October— I am not sure I can improve on an October figure at this point—over £22 billion of Russian assets were reported frozen as a result of UK sanctions. Those assets can no longer be taken back to Russia to fund the Putin war machine. Obviously, we consider Russia’s campaign to undermine our support unacceptable and destined to fail.

On the individuals who have been charged in connection with the investigation, and with others related to other countries that have subsequently occurred, the Crown Prosecution Service, in relation to the 26 April individuals, has confirmed that the charges relate to alleged hostile activity in the UK in order to benefit a foreign state—namely, Russia. Beyond that, I obviously cannot say very much, particularly as regards ongoing investigations.

Both noble Lords asked about illicit finance. We have swiftly implemented the strongest set of economic sanctions ever imposed against a G20 country. We have frozen over £22 billion of Russian assets under the sanctions regime, as I said, and the UK alone has sanctioned 2,000 individuals and entities under the Russian sanctions regime, over 1,700 of which have been sanctioned since Putin’s invasion. We have set up the combating kleptocracy cell in the National Crime Agency to target corrupt elites and their assets in the UK, ensuring that there is nowhere for this dirty Russian money to hide. The combating kleptocracy cell—CKC—can account for over 150 disruptions since the invasion of Ukraine, all of which demonstrably removed or reduced a criminal threat facing the UK.

I will digress briefly. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about golden visas. That scheme was closed in February 2022, following the recommendation of the Intelligence and Security Committee to review our approach to it. I have no further information about publication or anything else yet.

Returning to sanctions and what we are doing to enforce them in the UK, we are obviously committed to ensuring that they are robustly enforced and that potential breaches are investigated. Illustrating the co-ordinated approach, departments from across HMG—including the FCDO, the Treasury, OFSI, HMRC, the Home Office, DfT and the National Crime Agency—work together and with UK companies to ensure that sanctions are enforced. In August 2023, for example, HMRC fined a UK company £1 million in relation to the unlicensed trade of goods in breach of Russia sanctions. OFSI published an enforcement notice against Wise Payments Ltd, an FCA-regulated company, for breaching Russia sanctions by making funds available to a company owned or controlled by a designated person. So, firms should carefully consider what steps are appropriate to manage their sanctions risk exposure and take steps fully to address that risk. The Government have committed £50 million to support a new economic deterrence initiative to further boost our diplomatic and economic tools and improve sanctions implementation enforcement, as well as tackling sanctions evasion across the trade, transport and financial sectors.

On our collaboration with our international partners, we work closely with the G7, particularly the EU and the US, and we have stepped up our engagement with a range of third countries to highlight circumvention risk—the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, alluded to this—and support them to tackle this issue. That includes joint diplomatic outreach to countries where we see spikes in the trade of sanctioned goods with Russia. We are particularly focused on the goods published in the CHP list.

In recent months, we have sent joint delegations to the UAE, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Armenia, as well as having senior bilateral engagement with Turkey and Serbia, to highlight these risks and offer technical support. We have funded technical support sessions delivered by UK legal experts to business and government contacts in Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to improve understanding of and compliance with the UK sanctions measures and regime. These efforts are paying off: a number of countries have announced concrete measures to reduce the risk of sanctioned goods reaching Russia. The latest trade data indicates a downward trend in direct exports of these items to Russia from countries of interest, including some that I mentioned.

On why we have yet to seize Russia’s assets, we remain committed to exploring all lawful routes to using Russian sovereign assets in support of Ukraine. We continue to drive ambition within the G7, which has agreed to consider this issue collectively. We continue to work at pace ahead of the G7 leaders’ summit. I commit to keeping the House updated on significant developments as appropriate. While G7 discussions continue, the UK has taken a number of steps domestically. We were the first to introduce legislation explicitly enabling us to keep sanctions in place until Russia pays for the damage it has caused. We are establishing a route by which sanctioned individuals can donate frozen funds for Ukrainian reconstruction, and we have introduced new powers to compel sanctioned individuals and entities to disclose assets they hold in the UK.

With noble Lords’ indulgence, I will address a slightly broader question which I have perhaps not been asked entirely: how we are combating Russia’s war economy. We have banned all known items found on the battlefield in Ukraine. We have banned dual-use and critical industry, aviation, defence and security goods. We have published a common high-priority items list—a list of 50 battlefield items that are important for Russia’s war effort—helping businesses identify the most critical items to focus their efforts on. This is degrading Russia’s military and high-tech industries. Production of the next-generation airborne early-warning and control aircraft has stalled due to a lack of foreign components, including semiconductors. Russia is therefore turning to other countries to supply these goods. We see reports of that in the newspapers, but I reassure noble Lords that the UK is very much leading on this work and delivering results.

On the tit-for-tat arrangement mentioned by both noble Lords, I of course cannot account for what Russia may or may not do. Regarding advice to UK residents, journalists and other interested parties in Russia, I have not looked at the recent Foreign Office advice, but I am sure it has been kept very much up to date on a regular basis. But obviously, I caution all journalists operating in Russia to be aware of the case of Evan Gershkovich, whom the Russians really should have released by now.

I think I have answered all the questions. I cannot commit to proactive briefings now, but I will certainly bear in mind what the noble Lord said and make sure it is understood in the department.

Lord Swire Portrait Lord Swire (Con)
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Will my noble friend the Minister clarify whether the UK is able to act unilaterally on sequestered Russian assets and does not have to operate within the G7 framework, or whether we have to act collectively? Secondly, with that in mind and given the involvement of the UK, can the Minister update the House on the progress of the sale of Chelsea and the £2.5 billion, which is much needed? We should not fool ourselves: the situation in Ukraine is extremely serious now. It needs all the help we can give, both materiel and, obviously, financial assistance. We need to move a little quicker than perhaps we have in the past.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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On the first part of my noble friend’s question, I do not know the precise answer to whether or not we can act unilaterally. I imagine that that is the case, but I would question whether it would have much utility. By definition, the threat is a global one and the co-ordinated response will be much more significant if we take it with our allies and friends than if we go it alone.

As for Chelsea, I cannot comment. I know that discussions are ongoing, but I do not know where they are.

Lord Austin of Dudley Portrait Lord Austin of Dudley (Non-Afl)
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Could the Minister update us on what the Government are doing to secure the release of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a British citizen incarcerated by Putin on trumped-up charges?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am afraid that I do not have information on that. I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Pickles Portrait Lord Pickles (Con)
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My Lords, on using Russian assets, there still remains the appalling war crime of 19,600 children who have been abducted by the Putin regime from their families in Ukraine, who have had no contact with them—and so far only 388 have been returned. Could we not offer help to those families, first, to trace where their children are and, secondly, in the form of financial help to get them back?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My noble friend raises a poignant and pertinent issue. Of course, our sympathies go to the parents of those children. Is there much else that I can say? I am afraid that I do not think that there is, as regards financial help. I hear what my noble friend says, and it is obviously something that I shall take back to the department. I do not know whether it is an appropriate thing for the Home Office to deal with, but I shall make some more investigations and happily report back.

Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Excerpts
Tuesday 14th May 2024

(1 month, 1 week ago)

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Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Lister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on bringing these regret Motions. Before I start, let us remind ourselves that the net migration figures stand at 672,000, a figure that, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, mentioned, I think we could all agree needs to be reduced.

The changes to the Immigration Rules are intended to reduce immigration and encourage UK employers to invest in the resident workforce—a laudable aim that we could all support. There are numerous changes to various thresholds with respect to immigration, but we have no idea whether they will work, and neither does the Minister—he has not got a clue, either, because the evidence is not there. I will tell you what I think has happened. The report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee should be compulsory reading for every single Member of your Lordships’ House on how not to do a Bill or a piece of secondary legislation. It is absolutely shocking. We should remind ourselves that this was published on 24 March, saying, “Where’s the impact assessment? Where’s the equality impact assessment? Where’s the evidence for what the Government are doing?”

The Minister was called before the committee. I cannot remember the date off the top of my head, but he had to go and explain what was going on, to the best of his ability. I think the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is absolutely right: I can only imagine that there been a furious row in the Home Office between the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, I would guess, and others, where the noble Lord said, “I’ve got to go to this committee and this Chamber to defend the policy, but you won’t give me the impact assessment”. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that they said, “We can’t publish the impact assessment in the way that it’s done because it actually doesn’t support what we’re doing”. If that is not the case, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, could explain what the impact assessment says and why on earth the Government would not publish it, if it supports what they are doing. That would completely undermine what my noble friend Lady Lister, the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord German, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and I have all said. I have no idea what has gone on.

I will ask the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, a basic question: does the Home Office care that it put a Minister before the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee to explain why it had not published an impact assessment? I believe the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, does care and that he has been sold a pup on this one, so let us depersonalise this: does the Home Office care? Why has the Home Office not published it? Does it not care about what the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has said? Does it not care that the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, made various commitments to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, when he was called before it, about the need to publish that? We then read that an impact assessment has been produced, but it is not to be published. What on earth is going on?

The point made in this Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee report is that the Home Office is a serial offender. This happens time and time again. I have to say that the regret Motion simply sets out and gives us the opportunity of saying to the Government, “It can’t go on like this”. How on earth can you produce 289 pages and expect any scrutiny of all the various changes that are made, without any evidence for us to look at and understand?

These are massive changes. Noble Lords heard the personal examples that the right reverend Prelate, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others gave about the very real impact this has. Yet the Government say, “We’re doing it because we believe it’s the right thing to do and it will have some sort of impact”. I will read out a couple of examples. I do not know whether people have read this, but the Minister gave a figure of 300,000 for what the impact of these particular changes would have been, looking back. Where has that come from? Where was the evidence for it? If it was looking back, the Government presumably have some estimate looking forward. So I do not understand it, and neither did the chair of the committee, because he asked the Minister to explain it—and, if I remember right, the Minister asked the official. It would be handy to know where 300,000 has come from. It was looking back, so what about looking forward?

Let us have a quick look. The various thresholds have been increased. The threshold for the skilled worker visa is up from £26,200 to £38,700. How big a reduction is that going to make? The minimum income requirement, which is the income required for British citizens and entitled residents to bring a partner to the UK, goes up from £18,600 to £29,000. How big a reduction will that produce—and on who? The Government say that they will reduce dependence on imported skilled labour and encourage training of the resident workforce. That is a laudable aim, but where is the evidence for that? How is the training going to take place, and what happens to the transition? You cannot just say that we will get rid of skilled migrants coming to this country and replace them with a resident workforce. It is not like turning a tap on—so what is going to happen in the transition? What happened to the consultation when the care sector said that it would end up with problems? What was the Government’s response to the care sector in that regard?

Can the Minister explain why the child element of the threshold, contributing to the minimum income requirement, was abolished? That contradicts the stated policy aim of ensuring self-sufficiency—again, that is unclear. Was the Minister himself happy with the consultation that took place, given the fact that there was none? Why was there no particular consultation? What happened to it?

Why is there no equalities impact assessment? The noble Lord, Lord German, read out the consequences of having one threshold for the whole of the country. It makes a huge difference whether you live in the north-east, London or wherever. What do the Government think about that? Are they not bothered about it? Is it just something that they can brush off and say it does not really matter?

Who signed all this off? I do not believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, so which Minister signed it all off? Who said that this was all fine to do? Who has made the decision to say, “We can do all of this without an impact assessment; we don’t care—and I’m sorry, Lord Sharpe, but you’ve got to go and do the regret Motion. We’re still not going to publish it, and it will just happen”? That is not the way to do business. It is unacceptable. The Government and the Home Office need to take responsibility for it. At the very least, let this be the last time that we get major legislation through an SI done like this, without an impact assessment. It is not good enough. It has an impact on a huge number of people’s lives. I do not blame the Minister, but the Home Office is to blame for this. It is a totally unacceptable way in which to conduct business.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. Before I get to do the “bad cop” thing, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Empey, to send me Mr Ferguson’s details, and I will of course happily look into his case.

Before getting on to the detail of the regret Motions, can I set out some background about the decision to raise the minimum income requirement, to which I shall henceforward refer as the MIR? It is important that we put these issues into context. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, pointed out, net migration is too high; we have to get back to sustainable levels. In the year to June 2023, as has been noted, it was estimated to be at 672,000. Last year, we announced a series of robust measures to bring those numbers down, including tightening the rules on care workers, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, mentioned, as well as on skilled workers, and making sure that people can support family members they bring to the UK.

Far from being a “Get out of the UK” policy, as was somewhat intemperately alleged by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the approach that we are taking is firm but fair. It is designed not only to bring numbers down substantially but to address the injustice of a system which, if left untouched, would reward employers seeking to recruit cheap labour from overseas at the expense of British workers and put unsustainable pressure on our most vital public services. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, would concede, that is a laudable aim. The decision to raise the MIR is a key part of our plan to reduce overall migration levels. Taken together, the changes that we are implementing will mean that the 300,000 people who came to the UK last year would now not be able to come.

I turn to the specifics of the regret Motions. First, I want to provide clarity on the objective of raising the MIR. The MIR was first introduced in July 2012 to ensure that family migrants could be supported at a reasonable level, so that they do not unreasonably become a burden on the British taxpayer, as well as to help to ensure they can participate sufficiently in everyday life to facilitate their integration into our society. It has not been increased in line with inflation or real wages since its introduction—nor has it been adjusted in light of rising numbers of migrants using the route. It is in that context that we have reviewed the threshold and taken the decision to raise it to match the level of income needed for somebody to come here as a skilled worker, which is currently at £38,700 per year. That ensures that migration policy supports our wider ambition for the UK to be a high-wage, high-productivity, high-skill economy.

Bringing the family income threshold into line with the new minimum general salary threshold for skilled workers will ensure that people bring to the UK only those dependants whom they can support financially. It will also encourage them to maintain the financial independence of all family members once they settle and who would otherwise gain full access to the benefit system.

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Baroness Hamwee Portrait Baroness Hamwee (LD)
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My Lords, for clarification, can the Minister expand on the “at least” £38,700, whether there is a top limit, whether there will be consultation on it, and when the Government intend to make any announcement with regard to this?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am afraid I cannot but, for now, at least means at least.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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My Lords, I start with an apology; I should have said that I too am an associate of RAMP. I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke: all more or less in favour of the Motion, apart from the Minister.

I am conscious that colleagues want to carry on with the discussion on the Bill but, frankly, I felt as if I was listening to Alice through the looking glass. Between us, we demolished the arguments that have been put forward, and the Minister simply repeated them—without convincing anybody, I think. He did not explain why the Migration Advisory Committee has not been consulted. He did not even have the courtesy to address the point I made at the end: now that there is a pause, they should now be consulted, and so should experts by experience.

I cannot believe that we were told the impact assessment will come forward. This is the scrutiny, so when are we going to scrutinise this again? What is the point of an impact assessment that comes after it has been scrutinised in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords? Will we have a chance to have another go when the impact assessment is finally published? I hope so because, otherwise, it is beyond belief.

I asked a question about the family test. Government departments are supposed to apply the family test to every policy that might affect families; this is a policy that is cutting families down the middle. Did the department apply the family test? I do not know, because the Minister did not answer the question.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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With respect, I did. It is all very well to lob accusations of a lack of courtesy, but I do not think that is entirely fair. I think I dealt with the House with a great deal of courtesy.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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Sorry, I am not saying that the Minister did not show courtesy—although he did not have the courtesy to address the soft-cop option that I offered at the end, and actually I think that was discourteous. I am sorry if I missed his answer on the family test. I will read Hansard and see what it says; if he did not answer it, I will follow it up in Written Questions.

I will leave it there because, as I said, colleagues want to carry on with the other business. Those who are affected by this, who have been listening, who will read it or who are watching will be very disappointed that the Minister was not able to answer any of the questions that we asked. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Passport e-Gates Network Outage

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2024

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Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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My Lords, I too pay tribute to the staff involved, both Border Force staff and other airport staff, who took the pressure when this occurred. It is now five days after this Statement was made in the other place and, understandably, the Minister there was able to give only limited detail and indicate that investigations were ongoing. Clearly there will be more known now than was known then, so can the noble Lord give us more detail and a commitment that, when the final report is produced, he will return to inform us about the lessons that it revealed? Getting this right is obviously vital.

The Government were lucky this time, as the issue occurred in the early evening, midweek, in early May—at a quiet time of the day, a quiet time of the week and a quiet time of the year. If it had occurred at peak time, the story would probably have been very different. This is the third eGate failure in a year. It simply cannot be acceptable to regard it as an inevitable part of a technology-based system, because even more complications are coming in the near future.

The UK Government are introducing the ETA—the electronic travel authorisation—for non-visa countries. This has already started with the Gulf countries, and plans to roll it out gradually—first to the rest of the world other than the EU, and then to the EU—are scheduled for October 2024. The EU is also introducing the EES—the entry and exit scheme—including facial recognition and fingerprints. This scheme’s full implementation has been delayed until after the Olympics and is now also expected in October. Surely it is a potentially fatal mistake to introduce both the ETA and the EES at the same time. Can I ask what discussions the Government are having with the EU to ensure that everything does not all coincide at the same time?

The general public are blissfully unaware of what lies ahead. What plans do the Government have to alert and inform people well in advance of the introduction of these changes? Can the noble Lord assure us that the technology for this is fully ready and thoroughly tested?

Both UK and EEA citizens can use eGates, and the Government have recently added 10 more countries to the list of those that can use them. That is why eGates are so busy. Ironically, instead of taking back control of our borders following Brexit, we have in fact reduced the number of controls at our borders. Noble Lords will know that when we UK citizens go abroad to the EU now, we are not able to use eGates in most cases; we are required to queue up, and very often we have to answer detailed questions about our visit, rather like we do if, for example, we visit the USA. We no longer have the privilege of easy entry and exit from EU countries. We are making life easier for people coming here, but life is not being made easier for us going to other places.

We all know that having a physical presence is a major deterrent to people wanting to abuse access to this country. Does all this not underline the need to keep a strong physical presence of Border Force officers at our points of entry and exit from this country?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their questions, which I will endeavour to answer. I join them in thanking all the Border Force officers for their efforts.

On a question that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked me, I take this opportunity to reassure the House that border security was not compromised in any way. I am also grateful to the public, who were extremely patient, and I join my honourable friend in the other place in offering our sincere apologies for the inconvenience caused to them.

It is worth giving a little context about eGates, because they have revolutionised the experience at the border, as I am sure all noble Lords can attest. Many more checks are performed automatically than was previously possible, and it is now quicker, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, has just noted, for many passengers to land in the UK.

The eGates generally continue to perform extremely well, and most ports report that an average of 90% of passengers eligible to use eGates use them very successfully. The Border Force facilitated over 132 million passenger arrivals last year, with 90% of those within current service standards. The number was even better in the fourth quarter of last year; it was 96.7%. I am grateful for its efficiency and, much as it will regret the occasional blip, none the less it is generally speaking a very strong story.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked whether the root cause has been identified and rectified. Engineers identified the cause of the outage—and it was an outage—as a capacity issue. That was on an element of the network that controls network traffic within the data centres. The incident was caused by the cumulative effect of changes we have been making to sustain and modernise the network environment; incidentally, those will produce increased resilience over the summer. All the incidents that have affected the eGates have been singular and nothing has been repeated. The technical term for the outage was something to do with a logical network route—at which point, I confess I rather glazed over and did not really understand the further technical remarks that were made to me. But I am reassured that that has been entirely dealt with; capacity has been increased, and this therefore should not happen again—I hesitate to say it will not happen, but it should not.

I turn to the other questions asked of me. There was no malign actor, hacking or cyberactivity associated with this; it was simply a capacity issue with regard to the network infrastructure. That also rules out software and hardware problems; it really was just about system capacity. As I have already said, there were not any vulnerabilities at the border.

I was asked questions about the EU Entry/Exit System. As I have said before from the Dispatch Box, the Government are doing as much as they possibly can to prepare for the implementation of the EES and its impact on British travellers, particularly at the juxtaposed border controls in Dover, at Eurostar in St Pancras and at the Channel Tunnel. We engage regularly with the Commission and the French Government at every level. Beyond this, we hosted the director-general of the Police aux Frontières on his visit to Dover, St Pancras and Folkestone last month. We continue to work with the port operators to understand the impacts of the EES and obviously support their plans to mitigate them.

We are working up plans to make sure that the public are kept abreast of all these new requirements, and that any impacts they may have on their future travel plans are well understood in advance. I believe my right honourable friend in the other place is due to appear before the European Select Committee on this, at which point no doubt much more will become available. The European Commission guidelines have not yet been issued, so there is not much more I can say about the European side.

As regards the timing and phasing of this, obviously the ETAs have now been in operation for a while—certainly going back to last year. They are not, as it were, coincident. The simple fact of the matter is that it may be inconvenient for us if the EU is tightening its border controls, but I respect and defend its right to maintain its own border integrity, as we do.

I was asked about a physical presence at the border. I agree: of course, there must be a physical presence. However, there has been much chatter about things such as roving officers, and so on. I reassure noble Lords that the border is not compromised by a roving officer not being present; they do not control who can pass through the eGates. The eGates undertake all the security measures of passengers who use them.

It is simply not true that this involves reduced control. Individuals who use these eGates—this answers one of the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson—are not routinely questioned by Border Force officers, but they continue to conduct a full range of security checks, and the biometric check they undertake to compare the person with their travel document means that they are a highly effective means of detecting imposters. They are also able to identify pre-existing adverse information about travellers, and individuals subject to information will be seen by a Border Force officer. If officers require information about any person’s previous immigration history, the Home Office has access to data, including advance passenger information and exit record checks, to be able to verify a person’s individual history. Those officers retain the ability to exercise the full range of their powers at the border, and will continue to refuse entry, where appropriate, to those they deem eligible. I agree that it needs to be visible, but it is effective.

To go back to what the ETA actually is, it is a digital permission to travel to the UK for those who want to visit who do not need a visa. As the noble Baroness correctly pointed out, the scheme has already launched for nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Other non-visa nationals will be able to apply for ETAs later this year. We believe they are making the UK safer, because they enhance the Government’s ability to screen travellers and prevent those who pose a threat getting on a plane, ferry or international train. Of course, by knowing more in advance of travel, our ambition is to increase automation of passenger clearance at the border and generally improve the experience.

I think I have answered all the questions, but I reassure noble Lords that this was a one-off incident and I am reliably informed that it has now been corrected and that additional capacity has been put in place. Obviously, I would not like to claim that it will never happen again but, as far as I am aware, the situation has been dealt with and again I thank Border Force officers and those in the Home Office data and digital team who worked very hard on this.

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I will address the last points first. As I said, it was not a software issue that caused this particular outage, so I can deal with that relatively straightforwardly. As regards government contracts, as the noble Lord will be aware, I think they are all published on GOV.UK. I am not sure if this one was or if I am wrong there, but I will check and find out and come back as required.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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Yes, I will also check on that.

I did not know about the Amadeus takeover of this particular Portuguese company, but I will make further inquiries and, if there is more to be said, I will write to the noble Lord.

Lord Bellingham Portrait Lord Bellingham (Con)
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My Lords, will the Minister agree that one of the lessons from earlier outages was the need to be able bring in extra staff and surge staff if it ever happened again? Of course, it did happen again and the fact that the staff were able to get into place very quickly is to be commended and the staff involved need to be thanked and congratulated on their swift response.

The Minister in the other place said that he could not comment further on the root causes of the outage: however, the Minister here went into more detail on that. Is that the update the Minister in the other place promised last Wednesday and is there nothing more that can be mentioned about that and elaborated on? Also, when the EES comes in—which the noble Baroness dealt with at some length—can the Minister tell the House whether it will apply to flights from the UK to airports in the Republic of Ireland?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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As I have already said, I do not know to what my right honourable friend in the other House was referring when he talked about updates, so I am afraid I do not know whether I have just given an update on his points. What I can say—and should have said in my opening remarks—is that the lessons learned exercise is still ongoing, so I cannot say that that is fully concluded yet because it is not. I am afraid I do not know the answer regarding the Republic of Ireland. From memory, I do not think the Republic of Ireland is a member of the Schengen agreement, so I am not actually sure how that affects it.

Viscount Stansgate Portrait Viscount Stansgate (Lab)
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My Lords, the House will be relieved that what happened was not the result of a cyberattack and did not compromise our borders, but nevertheless, in the Minister’s own words, it was the result of a capacity issue and cumulative changes. In the light of the question asked earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, is the Minister, in effect, telling the House that there was an upgrade issue? He said that he hoped it would not happen again, but it has happened in the past, and it was because of an upgrade issue. Can the Minister be honest with the House about this, especially bearing in mind that the reputational damage to the UK is so obvious when something like this happens?

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I can reassure the noble Viscount that I am being honest. The simple fact is that this is not a repetition of the previous outage, which was unrelated to this capacity issue. The capacity relating to this incident has now been doubled, in effect, so I am confident that the problem is currently fixed. The previous issue related to a different set of upgrades, as far as I understand.

Lord Teverson Portrait Lord Teverson (LD)
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My Lords, I shall be a little bit more positive and say, first, that since their introduction these gates have been tremendous in terms of increasing mobility and getting people through airports generally. I welcome them in terms of people being able to travel relatively freely. At the moment—this may be slightly different data from that of my noble friend—I understand that seven non-European nations are able to use the gates, including South Korea. Can the Minister say whether more negotiations are going on and whether we will be able to welcome more nations to this facility? Secondly, Ireland is not part of Schengen; it is part of the common travel area that we are the major part of. One key area for security was the Schengen Information System, which has an alert system in terms of bad guys and people who we would not want to come into this country. Can the Minister remind me whether we are still seeking entry or sharing Schengen Information System data, whether that is still possible or whether it has happened?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for his positivity, and I could not agree with him more. It is perfectly possibly now to get off a plane and, if you do not have luggage, to be out of an airport within 15 or 20 minutes, which is remarkable—Singapore levels of efficiency, some might say. As regards the sharing of information and Schengen, I am afraid I do not know the answer; I will have to write on that.

Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab)
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My Lords, I have an interest in this question. I do not think it is a declarable interest, but I have an interest to this extent: I was a Minister in the early 2000s when these gates were put in the first time. I was responsible, with my noble friend Lord Blunkett, who was the Home Secretary, for installing eGates. I think they have transformed the ability of people to go through our airports, and I am very supportive of them.

I am obliged to Tom Pursglove for reinforcing on 8 May what we were debating for some hours in the previous business, which is that you can never guarantee that any IT system will be 100% reliable 100% of the time. Persuading people that that was the case is what led to the Horizon scandal. I do not want to take the Minister back to where he has been since my noble friend Lord Coaker asked him a question and the two other questions, but Tom Pursglove’s answers need clarification. The Minister has given us some. If the noble Lords do not mind, I am going to read consecutive sentences that Tom Pursglove used when answering this question in the other place. He said:

“When it comes to the root cause of what happened—how we got to this point in the first place—as soon as the fix was put in place, the posture changed to getting us to a place where we better understand the root cause. That work is ongoing, and it would not be right for me to speculate on it, but I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that we will get to the bottom of the issue”.


He then went on to say—and this is what confuses me:

“As for the specific technical issue last night, I am assured that the technical team are confident that there is now a permanent fix to that issue”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/5/24; col. 594.]


That seems to suggest that he was in a position to say what it was. The important question was asked by my honourable friend Dan Jarvis, against the background of previous e-outages. He sought to find out whether this was the same problem recurring; that was the simple question. If it is not the same problem recurring—I infer from what the Minister said that it is not—that is the answer to the question, but if it is still an issue, I would like to know, as I am sure would other noble Lords. In any event, I suggest that the Minister goes back to Mr Pursglove and tells him to be more specific in answering the question, rather than being in places.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I will repeat what I said earlier: there is no relation to any previous incident. In effect, I am being asked to unpick what my right honourable friend in the other place might have meant a week ago, which I simply do not know. I will tell the House what I do know—I have already said this, but I will repeat it. At 7.44 pm on 7 May, a loss of network connectivity caused a number of Home Office IT systems to lose service, including customer services and migration and border systems. Operational policing systems were unaffected, although Home Office access to them was. Due to the timing of the outage, the primary visible impact was at all ports where both eGates and primary control point desks were unavailable. Border Force officers reverted to using PCP laptops, which are not reliant on the network, and the Warnings Index to process passengers. Service was fully restored just after midnight on 8 May. As I said, DDaT engineers identified that the cause of the outage was a capacity issue on an element of the network that controls network traffic in the data centres. The incident was caused by the cumulative effect of changes that we have been making to sustain and modernise the Home Office network environment. That is all I can answer.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach Portrait Lord Taylor of Holbeach (Con)
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My Lords, I will recount a personal anecdote, and ask my noble friend the Minister some questions, because I travel frequently between here and the European Union. I had the good fortune to arrive at Gatwick in the mid-afternoon of the day in question; had I not, I might have been stuck, so I felt much relief from my adept timing. However, I am somewhat anxious, given the amount of traffic that one can expect at places such as St Pancras station and the like. I went there with a group from this House to see what is being done to anticipate the queues of people. I know from experience that being at St Pancras and boarding a Eurostar train can be a very time-consuming business—however hard you try, it will be difficult. I am told that a lot of the shops will have to be demolished to provide room for the ETA system to be effectively applied.

Is my noble friend the Minister prepared to give us some notional guidance on how the changes at St Pancras station are developing? The use of eGates there is to be applauded. Schiphol airport has an open eGate system now; I have spent too many hours there waiting for somebody to stamp my passport to know that that is a great advantage. It will be a great advantage to use eGates because of the extension that has been granted from this country into the Netherlands and the reciprocal measure here. What is the situation with St Pancras and its Eurostar eGates?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for that, and I am delighted that he did not get caught in the disruption last week. As I said in my opening answer to the Front Benches opposite, the Government are doing everything that we can to prepare for the implementation of EES and mitigate its impacts on British travellers, which particularly applies to the juxtaposed border controls. As I mentioned, the director-general of the Police aux Frontières visited Dover, St Pancras and Folkestone last month. I cannot speculate on what physical changes may be required at St Pancras to accommodate the new systems. My noble friend mentioned the ETA system, but I do not think that that is what he meant; I think that he is talking about the EES. I suspect that the ETA system will not have much impact at all at St Pancras. As soon as I am in a position where I can give an update on any physical or infrastructural changes required in and around St Pancras—and, indeed, at the other juxtaposed border controls—I will be very happy to come back and explain them.

Baroness Foster of Oxton Portrait Baroness Foster of Oxton (Con)
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My Lords, on the point about outage, the same thing happened 12 months ago. It was not necessarily the same issue of capacity but, nevertheless, it is not good enough. We rely so heavily now on numbers to make sure that these eGates work. We work on reciprocity. Reciprocity means that we welcome people from other countries into the UK, inbound, and they can use eGates—not all of them, but we have agreed with a number of countries that this can take place.

That is not the case now when, as UK passport holders, we go to places where we could formerly use eGates. We are fine in Spain and one or two other countries but, when we travel to other places, which are not off the map, we find that we are not allowed to use eGates. Can I ask my noble friend to look into this? It is a matter of fairness that, if we are willing to welcome other countries’ citizens into our country using eGates, it should be a reciprocal arrangement.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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First, I say again, for the record, that this was not an outage that we have seen before but a unique situation; I say this just to shoot that particular fox. My noble friend makes some very good points. These are matters of high-level diplomacy but I will, of course, look into the reciprocity arrangements that she talks of and see whether there is any more that I can say about that. I suspect that negotiations are ongoing and I imagine that they form part of much bigger discussions.

Viscount Waverley Portrait Viscount Waverley (CB)
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My Lords, technical challenges have been referred to in some detail in relation to Portugal, with the potential that that country, in which I am resident, is to be suspended from the Schengen system in July. This will presumably cause a whole plethora of additional challenges for the UK tourist industry. All the countries seem to be having these technical problems. I wonder, could there be some kind of discussion to see what could be done working in unison to try to sort it out?

While on my feet, I encourage the Minister to consider the provision under Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, whereby residents of a country, if non-nationals, may avail themselves of foreign immigration lines. The SEF authorities in Portugal would welcome Ministers from both countries, Portugal and the UK, sitting together, as it would ease their burden. The systems are exactly the same whether you are resident or non-resident, in respect of which lines you have to go through. However, because of Article 50—dare one say it, a colleague in this House was responsible for drawing up that process; a colleague who says, “Not me, guv”—the SEF authorities would very much welcome the Ministers getting together to sort this out by agreement.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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Again, I am not particularly qualified to comment on Portugal’s internal systems and processes. Perhaps, since he lives there, the noble Viscount could bring his considerable diplomatic weight to bear and help us out a bit. Those discussions should be ongoing. It is, of course, our oldest alliance, so I am sure there is plenty of good will.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I will return briefly to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, about the new owners of the software provider having full provision for the ending of support for Windows 10. I do not think the Minister answered that, so perhaps he could write to us later about it.

There are broader questions raised by this incident about the robustness and resilience of critical official systems. I have a Written Question down at the moment about their robustness and resilience against the solar storms we are currently experiencing. I will park that to one side, except to note that, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, external threats will lead to internal breakdowns. We have seen this again and again with the border gate systems. Do the Government have a list or register of the systems for which there has to be an alternative manual arrangement which can deliver at reasonable speed and in reasonable volumes? There is obviously a risk when we are digitising so many systems. Are the Government saying that there are some things for which there has to be a manual emergency system and that they are ensuring that provision?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I answered the noble Lord’s question in that I genuinely do not know, so I shall write. As far as I can tell, the noble Baroness’s question ranged from matters of diplomacy to matters of astronomy. It has certainly covered a wide area. She will not be surprised to know that I am not an expert on either. As to whether there is a list of systems where a manual resilience process needs to be maintained, I do not know. Of course, there are certainly lists of priorities which must be maintained at all costs to maintain national security, border integrity and so on. I do not have this to hand but I will investigate the manual side of things. If there is anything useful to say, I will come back on it.

House adjourned at 7 pm.

Immigration (Leave to Enter and Remain) (Amendment) Order 2024

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2024

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom
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That the draft Order laid before the House on 11 March be approved.

Considered in Grand Committee on 7 May.

Motion agreed.

Modern Slavery National Referral Mechanism: Waiting Times

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2024

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Bishop of Bristol Portrait The Lord Bishop of Bristol
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce waiting times for ‘conclusive grounds’ decisions under the National Referral Mechanism for modern slavery.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, the Government remain committed to ensuring that victims are identified promptly. We have taken steps to shorten the timelines for making decisions in the national referral mechanism, including new guidance for making reasonable grounds decisions, changes to the online referral form and setting timescales for information to be provided to the competent authorities. We have also significantly increased staffing for the competent authorities and are seeing the results through increased output of decisions.

Lord Bishop of Bristol Portrait The Lord Bishop of Bristol
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I thank the Minister for that Answer. The median waiting time for conclusive grounds decisions in 2023 was 526 days but, for women, the median waiting time rose to 904 days, nearly double that for the whole group. This has a negative impact on them, their families and their children, and it makes it very difficult for swift enforcement action to be taken against perpetrators. What assessment have the Government made of why this discrepancy is so large and what steps are they taking urgently to reduce waiting times for women?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I thank the right reverend Prelate for that question. We are working to improve the timeliness of all decisions from all angles. That includes increasing the capacity for decision-making, testing alternative approaches, improving the quality of the information provided as part of the decision-making process, and reducing opportunities for misuse. The statistics are trending in the right direction. In the past two years, almost 30,000 people have had access to the protections of the NRM. Last year, 9,825 conclusive grounds decisions were issued, the highest number since the NRM began. In the first quarter of this year, 5,161 reasonable grounds decisions and 3,893 inclusive grounds decisions were issued, far higher than in any other quarter since the NRM began.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Portrait Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab)
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Can the Minister answer the question about the discrepancy between women and men in the cases cited?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I apologise; I should have addressed that. I do not know the precise reason for those discrepancies, but I will look into the details and come back to the noble Lord.

Baroness Butler-Sloss Portrait Baroness Butler-Sloss (CB)
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My Lords, I declare that I am co-chair of the parliamentary group on modern slavery and vice-chair of the Human Trafficking Foundation. Can the Minister say how the NRM will deal with potential victims of modern slavery when the Illegal Migration Act is in force?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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These are discussions that we have had at considerable length over the past few months. When the IMA is commenced, its modern slavery provisions will strengthen the UK’s continued efforts to mitigate risks to public order by withholding modern slavery protections from those who enter the UK illegally and who therefore put themselves and first responders at risk and place acute pressure on public services. Where someone has entered the UK illegally and is identified as a potential victim of modern slavery, we will ensure that they are either returned home or sent to another safe country, and away from those who have trafficked them.

Lord Randall of Uxbridge Portrait Lord Randall of Uxbridge (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my interest as the chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation. Home Office figures for 2023 include bad faith disqualifications, where someone has been disqualified from protection because the referral or claim was made in bad faith. As it appears that there were zero bad faith disqualifications last year, can my noble friend the Minister say what the evidence is for the claim we hear that the NRM is being abused?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The public order disqualification is part of the Nationality and Borders Act, which has also been discussed extensively from this Dispatch Box and over a number of debates. It provides a definition of public order which makes it operationally possible to withhold the recovery period in certain circumstances, in line with Article 13 of the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. All decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, can the Minister explain why the last annual report on modern slavery, as required by the Modern Slavery Act, was published in 2021? When will the Government publish the next annual report? Would that not help us to understand the statistics?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I have already highlighted that a lot of statistics have been published. I do not know specifically when the next report is due to be published, but I will find out.

Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
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My Lords, will not the new provisions that the Government introduce make it less likely that witnesses come forward? Will that not be welcomed by traffickers, who will see it as an easy way of not getting caught?

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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No. I do not see why it would make witnesses less likely to come forward.

Baroness Hamwee Portrait Baroness Hamwee (LD)
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My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that delays with the NRM leave potential victims without the security that they would otherwise have and—following on from the last question—make them more open to further exploitation and re-trafficking? Does he also recognise that many victims of trafficking are British citizens?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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What I recognise is that this is very complicated. Referrals into the national referral mechanism are made by a number of public authorities, including the police, local authorities and so on, as well as non-governmental organisations. Then, one of the two competent authorities takes a look and makes an initial reasonable grounds decision, following which a potential victim is entitled to a minimum 30-day recovery period, unless there are grounds to disqualify them from that entitlement. The recovery period lasts until a conclusive grounds decision is made. These cases are very complex. In many cases, there is insufficient evidence and information in the referral form, so the competent authorities must consider all the information available to them and request it from various other authorities over which they have little or no operational control, and they do not have investigatory powers. This is extraordinarily complicated, but of course I recognise the victims’ distress.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, the Minister must have had in mind the Salvation Army when he was talking about non-governmental agencies. Over the past 13 years, it has dealt with over 22,000 cases that it has referred to the national referral mechanism. Yet, in data that it has produced, it points out that the delays have risen from the very modest five-day target in 2023, which was often realised, to 47 days now. It also says that there are technical deficiencies with the NRM. Will the Minister agree to meet senior officials from the Salvation Army to discuss the practicalities and issues arising as a result of the delays?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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Yes, I am very happy to do so. The Salvation Army deserves great credit, because it is contracted to offer a lot of the services that are delivered via the NGOs to the victims.

Lord Meston Portrait Lord Meston (CB)
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My Lords, as the Minister has said, assessments to identify and support victims of trafficking, for whom any delay is harmful, can be complex and time-consuming. How many children are involved in the increasing backlog, either as victims themselves or as the children of victims? Do cases involving children receive any priority—and, if so, how?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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Of course, there are a lot of age-disputed cases in the system, so it is difficult to give the noble Lord a precise answer on that. There are decision-making pilots for children which are much quicker at making decisions. They are taken through a multi-agency structure of the local authority, health and police as a minimum. The safeguarding partners have a responsibility to obtain and present evidence at meetings where decisions are taken, so they are dealt with slightly differently.

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, this morning in the High Court in Belfast, a judgment disapplied certain elements of the Illegal Migration Act as they contravened Article 2 of the Windsor Framework. What assessment does the Minister, who brought the legislation through this House, have of that judgment?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am afraid that is the first I have heard of it, so I have no opinion on it.

Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD)
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My Lords, the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre’s paper on the 2023 national referral mechanism statistics notes with some concern that the data raises

“significant questions over the decision-making process”

as a result of changes to the statutory guidance that came in in January 2023 and not changes in the number of likely victims of modern slavery. Can the Minister say that the systems do not put victims of modern slavery at further risk?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I go back to an earlier answer I gave, that these are extraordinarily complex cases and, therefore, the guidance has to be refined in light of those cases periodically. I do not know to what specifically the noble Baroness is referring but, as far as I am aware, it does not make it any more complicated.

Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, I should have referred to my interest as a trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation, as laid out in the register, at the beginning of my question. I apologise for that.