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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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