UK Border Agency ‘embarrassment to the government’
Vaz also said that problems within the UK Border Agency are wreaking havoc among the country's immigrant communities.
RT:One of the departments that falls under your remit is the UK Border Agency, which is being widely criticized recently. In fact, you have called it unfit for purpose following the revelations that it has basically lost around 120,000 asylum-seekers and immigrants. What can be done about it?
Keith Vaz: There needs to be a fundamental shift in the culture of UKBA. We have many citizens from all over the world, some who want to come as students, some who want to come and settle here and some that want to come and invest in our country. The inefficiency of this organization I’m afraid is a bit of an embarrassment to the government, to the people of this country and they ought to get it right. Take, for example, somebody who’s living in Russia who wishes to come here and study in our universities, and I believe we have the finest universities in the world, they take so long to process the cases that people wonder whether or not they should even study in the UK. So this is doing us some real damage. It is damaging to our economy, damaging to our reputation, and quite honestly it is causing a lot of frustration to ordinary people.
RT:There is another side of the coin where we have people that want to come but can’t, and those who are already in the UK but unaccounted for?
KV: Well the mayor of London puts this figure at half a million people working in the so-called 'black economy,' not paying their taxes nor their national insurance but basically continuing surviving doing the work that they are doing and it is just not acceptable. And I hope very much that we can take effective action to try to give people the opportunity to be able to remain in this country in a way that is productive. People have come here and therefore they are able to deal with matters in a way which is seen to be fair. At the moment it's not fair, the moment the log is the size of Iceland, 300,000 people. Yesterday, we’ve heard that there are 50,000 cases that have not yet even been logged on a computer.
RT:That will have an effect on national security because at the moment, you’ve got a lot of people wandering around, potentially illegal immigrants, and the UK border agency does not know where they are.
KV: But of course and that is of real concern, we need to know who is let into our country and screen them properly and make decisions to what they should be doing.
RT:Among the genuine asylum-seekers, there are these Afghan translators who worked for the UK and the US Army and now find themselves under threat at home. They are bringing a legal action, we heard recently, to get the deal the Iraqi translators got, which is legal assistance and financial assistance to stay in this country- why didn’t the Afghan translators get that automatically?
KV: That is the question I put to the defense secretary. I have a particular constituent, Mohamed Hotaq, who is taking years to get asylum. He’s now got his leave to remain but is now waiting to be joined by his wife and two children and there are many others in exactly the same situation. What I’ve said is that Afgan interpretors ought to be offered the same deal as the Iraqi interpretors, because they’ve both helped our government and those in their fight against the Taliban.
RT:Is there an appetite, you think, to give the Afghan translators the same deal?
KW: I think the government will have to give way.
RT:But all this time, though, they’re living under threat?
KV: They certainly are.
RT:What message do you think it sends to the Afghans and indeed other nationals that might want to help us in the future?
KV: I think it is a bad message, and we need to improve the way in which we deal with those from the outside. And I hope we can do it in a way that is acceptable to those who help and serve our country. It is a bad message and we need to make sure its improved. I think at the end of the day, the British government will do it but it’s taken such a long time.
RT:An increasing number in this country are concerned about mass immigration. What message do you think the mess inside UKBA sends to them?
KV: Well it does not have an effect on illegals because they are here. It does have an effect on public opinion and I don’t think people mind people coming to this country to create jobs, to create wealth. They resent the people that are just coming here, just for example, to go on benefits and that sometime is used against those that are genuinely here as members of an émigré community
RT:But it is not possible at the moment to distinguish between those two groups?
KV: That is right. It is impossible to distinguish and that is exactly what we need to do. We need to distinguish and we need to make sure that that is done in a positive and constructive way.
RT:In a Border Agency move that seemed like a good idea at that time, universities were recently denied the right to issue visas to foreign students. You object to that, why?
KV: One university had its sponsor license suspended and in my view that was wrong to retrospectively stop the people who were here genuinely. When the university has done something wrong, then they ought to be punished, not genuine students. I think the government has got a message on this and we’ll make sure that in the future they don’t just suspend people in limbo.
RT:So basically, your objection is that it was done retrospectively?
KV: Well it is done retrospectively, because anyone who studies there, they could not study there. They were then judicially reviewed and they now recognized that people need to be able to find somewhere else to study. The period, the time that it was announced, was the wrong time. It was the start of term and no other universities were able to cope at the start of term, as one could imagine. So they could have chosen a better time.
RT:So this is really the same issue we’ve been talking about with the border agency as a whole?
KV: It’s a general issue in the UKBA, which really does need to be resolved.
RT:Is something being done to resolve this?
KV: Well, we heard from the minister. He seems to be very keen, sounds like a hands-on minister, he wants to make things change and lets see whether he’ll be able to do so.
RT:What is your ideal scenario?
KV: Well, ideally, anyone who wants to come here and study genuinely and attend the university here, and the university wants them and they qualify to come here, they ought to be allowed to come.
RT:There are currently smaller university and language schools that do have the right to issue visas and they are the ones who are taking in these students, who turn up to lectures on the first day of term and then they are never seen again.
KV: Well, those people, of course, should be reported. And it’s wrong that they should not be reported and I hope they will be.
RT:This is quite far reaching for the university though, because if they cant get money from foreign students and as we’ve heard recently applications from the UK students are down this year, where is funding going to come from?
KV: Well that is the problem. If you take away the overseas students, you cut government grants to the universities, then institutions will be under severe threat and they may not be able to continue.
RT:This will presumably have an effect on what you were talking about earlier, British universities being some of the best in the world.
RT:Are we talking about a brain drain here?
KV: Well, we’re looking at Britain no longer retaining its preeminence as the education capital of the world and I want to make sure that happens and the university want to make sure that that happens, but unfortunately the visa regime works against us.
RT:Terror suspect Abu Qatada is still here in the UK despite the Home Office's attempts to get rid of him, the case looks like now it could carry on for years. What went wrong?
KV: Well there are two ways in which it could have been done quicker. First the fast track system through the European Court for those who are suspected of terrorism, therefore you don’t need to wait for years and years. Secondly the Jordanian criminal code needs to be changed, not just assurances given by the Jordanian government but the criminal code needs to be changed. And if the criminal code is changed, there will be a difference and the courts will allow him to go.
RT:But none of these things are under control of the government of this country?
KV: No, but King Abdullah was here, and I’ve told the home secretary that we need to make sure that he’ll make those changes.
RT:Are we right for the European Court to make those decisions for us?
KV: We’ve signed up for the European Convention of Human Rights. We are a county that abides by the rule of law and therefore we need to follow what the EU court has said. That does not mean that the court cannot be made more efficient.
RT:Is it time now, in light of the Abu Qatada case and others to re-examine that again?
KV: It certainly is and I hope we can persuade the ministers to do that.
RT:It has now emerged that taxpayers have paid half a million pounds towards Abu Qatada’s legal aid fees. Can you comment on that?
KV: Well, it is a huge amount of money - half a million pounds is a huge amount of money for the taxpayer. But also, he had assets of 217,000, which they’ve seized . So in a real sense, they should use those assets against the money that has been paid by the taxpayer.
RT:But the cost is mounting all the time?
KV: We won’t talk about the cost of surveillance but it must be pretty high.
RT:The Home Affairs Select Committee led an investigation into phone hacking. What is your take on results of the Leveson Inquiry into press regulation?
KV: I support it. I think it is a great inquiry. I support every single word and think the findings of the Leveson Inquiry should be implemented in full.
RT:I’ve heard that you said the inquiry should be taken in its entirety, but what does statutory underpinning actually mean?
KV: Nobody knows and I think we should just go through the process of passing the bill. What Lord Justice Leveson means is we need to have a statute that forms the basis of self-regulation that the newspapers are going to do for themselves and it needs a bill and we do not know until we see the bill, and that bill needs to come out of the government, then we can comment on it, then we can amend it. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime Minister claimed that we should have a royal charter for the press as we have for the BBC but we need to see what is going to happen. I think the broadcast media are very good at keeping within the law.