A long read from Naomi Weir on how the Home Office have handled Parliamentary scrutiny of the tier 2 cap. In short, they must do better.

Transparency and accountability are vital components of an environment that supports and nurtures evidence-based policymaking and scrutiny. As evidence week in Parliament comes to a close I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about the desperate need for improved transparency from Government with the public and with Parliament on data and evidence surrounding immigration if we’re to improve discussion, debate and policy.

An essential function of Parliament is to scrutinise Government activity and to hold Government to account on behalf of the public, of which they are elected representatives. Our Parliamentary structures are designed to facilitate such scrutiny – from Select Committees and Ministerial Questions to Hansard, the verbatim written record of parliamentary proceedings. The same is true of many of the parliamentary rules and conventions including how and when Government must respond to recommendations in select committee reports, and provision of information requested through Parliamentary Questions.

Parliamentary questions allow MPs to hold the Government to account, using either oral questions to Ministers in the Chamber of the House of Commons or written questions. They oblige Ministers to explain and defend the work, policy decisions and actions of their Departments. PQs take up time and resource in Parliament and Government and so there are rightly rules around their use – for instance one of the rules is that PQs must not ask for information readily available elsewhere. PQs can be a very valuable tool to uncover information that isn’t otherwise published and CaSE has often worked with MPs to draft and table questions.

For instance, seeking to end the cap on skilled workers through the tier 2 route has been a long-standing campaign for CaSE. In 2015 while writing a report on immigration the cap was exceeded for the first time since its implementation in 2011 for one month in July. CaSE then worked with an MP to table a question to understand the impact of the policy on scientists and engineers.

21 September 2015 (tabled by Chuka Umunna MP) 9220

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, how many scientists and engineers have been refused a Tier 2 (General) Certificate of Sponsorship since May 2015 due to the annual cap of 20,700; which Standard Occupational Classification codes have been affected by the cap; and how many applications have been refused for each such code.

Answered by: James Brokenshire on 21 September 2015

“An annual limit on Tier 2 migrant workers coming from overseas was introduced in 2011 as a key part of our strategy for reducing net migration. We have committed to maintaining the limit at 20,700 during this Parliament.

Since May 2015, we have not refused any applications for a Tier 2 (General) restricted certificate of sponsorship with a scientist Standard Occupational Classification code. We have refused 66 applications with an engineer Standard Occupational Classification code:

Engineer SOC Codes

Refused

2127 Production and process engineers

2

2123 Electrical engineers

3

2122 Mechanical engineers

4

2124 Electronics engineers

6

2121 Civil engineers

8

2461 Quality control and planning engineers

9

2126 Design and development engineers

13

2129 Engineering professionals not elsewhere classified

21

Total

66

A full breakdown of all refusals since May 2015, for each Standard Occupational Classification code, has been placed in the House Library.”

These figures were helpful in demonstrating the damaging impact of the policy and highlighting the need for change. Thankfully on that occasion though the cap being exceeded was a one off event.

Until December 2017.

So we again took to working with a Parliamentarian to understand the impact on our sector asking the same question but with new dates, and expected a similar answer. But the response was disappointing.

Answered by: Caroline Nokes on 20 February 2018

“The specific information requested is not included in statistics published by the Home Office. The number of restricted certificates of sponsorship granted, and the points threshold, for each monthly allocation since April 2016 is published on the Home Office website

The response was disappointing on a number of levels.

Firstly, we knew the Home Office held this data as it is required for the operation of the cap. Secondly, the equivalent data had previously been released following the same question meaning the Home Office were being less transparent than in the past. Lastly, because the answer given is not a legitimate reason for not providing the data – as we all know the rules of PQs prevent MPs from tabling questions for data that is ‘readily available elsewhere’ which would apply to ‘statistics published by the Home Office’. Being generous, the answer is ill informed. More plausible, it is a purposeful attempt to withhold data from Parliament for which there is no credible reason to withhold. The subsequent follow up questions and answers (collated at the bottom of this piece) sadly point to this being the case. In each, the Home Office stuck to the inadequate answer that they wouldn’t provide the information as it was not routinely published.

This activity comes at a cost relating to the time and resource required by Departments to field and answer the questions. From December 2008 the average cost of a written question was £149 and for an oral question £410. The latter figure takes into account the additional research and briefing for possible supplementary questions.

All the while, visa refusals were mounting up but the public, Parliament, and even many departments within Government were not provided with the figures needed to understand the impact of the cap either to express their views on the policy or to understand and seek to mitigate the impact of the cap.

In the end CaSE resorted to an FOI and, after a one month delay (so 2 months in total), the Home Office provided us the figures showing for the first time the scale of refusals (6080 refusals in 4 months including 200 teachers, 400 engineers, 1200 tech roles, 1500 doctors, and 360 healthcare workers). We wrote about the problem and our proposed solution, as well as publishing the full data we received in the interests of transparency. This successfully kicked of a stream of headlines, articles and with consistent pressure from CaSE and others - now equipped with the figures we published - were able to secure a policy change from Government to relieve pressure on the cap and curb the crisis.

However, the transparency crisis continues.

After the Home Office provided us with the data, a PQ was submitted asking for the same information but for more recent months. Quite extraordinarily, the Home Office reverted to its previous form responding to say that – you guessed it – “The specific information requested is not included in statistics published by the Home Office.”

Quite rightly, the MP concerned, Paul Blomfield sought to raise this transparency and accountability issue in Parliament through a point of order on the 18th June.

“On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would appreciate your advice on what I think is a serious issue in relation to the provision of information to Members by the Home Office. In January I tabled a written parliamentary question seeking â€‹information on how many scientists and engineers had been refused a Tier 2 (General) certificate of sponsorship since November 2017 due to the annual cap having been reached. Despite the Home Office acknowledging that it held this information and not indicating that it would require disproportionate cost to compile it, it declined to provide it to me. However, the information was later released in response to a freedom of information request by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, with which I had been working on the issue. When I tabled a subsequent question asking for updated figures, given that this information was now in the public arena I assumed that the Home Office would provide it to me, but it refused again.

I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker, that it is unacceptable that the Home Office will not provide Members of this House with information that it holds but which it is prepared to release in response to an FOI request. It makes FOIs a more effective way of obtaining information than a parliamentary question.

I have raised my concerns with the Chair of the Procedure Committee, who shares them, and I would appreciate your advice, Mr Speaker, on what else I should do to ensure that the work of Members is not undermined in this way.”

To summarise a lengthy post, we’ve seen Parliamentary Questions repeatedly inadequately answered and then data given to CaSE when we resorted to an FOI. The Home Office subsequently failed again to give data to Parliament when asked, despite Proceedures Committee Chair deeming previous answers inadequate and the data having been provided in response to an FOI demonstrating the Home Office holds the data in a publishable form.

This lengthy process to understand the impact of UK immigration policy on the UK has led to wasting Government and Parliament time and public money and is not in line with good practice of transparency and accountability. This needs to change. As we’ve previously called for, if we’re to have any chance of a sensible and informed public and parliamentary discussion on immigration, and come up with a trusted and fit for purpose migration system post-Brexit, the Home Office must change course and take a lead on transparency and using evidence well.

Subsequent Parliamentary Questions in full

21 February 2018:128931

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, pursuant to the Answer to Question 124824 of 20 February 2018, on Engineers and Scientists: visas and with reference to the Answer to Question 9220 of 21 September 2015, on the same topic, when her Department ceased to publish these statistics.

Answered by: Caroline Nokes on 26 February 2018

The Department has not ceased to publish this information. The specific information requested has not previously been included in any official statistics published by the Home Office.

13 March 2018 132362

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, pursuant to the Answer of 26 February 2018 to Question 128931, on Engineers and Scientists: Visas, for what reason her Department is no longer able to provide the statistics it provided in the Answer of 21 September 2015 to Question 9220 on that same topic.

Answered by: Caroline Nokes on 21 March 2018

Data is no longer provided in the format requested. Published data on sponsorship applications can be found in the immigration statistics release.

21 March 2018 133795

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, pursuant to the Answer of 21 March 2018 to Question 132362, on Engineers and Scientists: Visas, whether her Department no longer collects the data referred to.

Answered by: Caroline Nokes on 26 March 2018

The Department has not ceased collecting the data referred to.

26 March 2018 134308

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, pursuant to the Answer of 26 March 2018 to Question 133795, on Engineers and Scientists: Visas, whether it is her policy not to publish the data referred to.

Answered by: Caroline Nokes on 29 March 2018

The specific information requested is not included in statistics published by the Home Office. For consistency, the Department refers to official published statistics and data is no longer provided in the format requested.

17 April 2018 136252

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, pursuant to the Answer of 29 March 2018 to Question 134308 on Engineers and Scientists: Visas, if she will place that data in the Library.

Answered by: Caroline Nokes on 23 April 2018

Data is no longer provided in the format requested. Published data on sponsorship applications can be found in the immigration statistics release.

1 May 2018 140065

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, pursuant to the Answer of 27 April to Question 137536 on Engineers and Scientists: Visas, how many (a) scientists and (b) engineers were refused a Tier 2 (General) Certificate of Sponsorship between May 2015 and November 2017 as a result of the annual cap been reached.

Answered by: Caroline Nokes on 9 May 2018

The specific information requested is not included in statistics published by the Home Office. The number of restricted certificates of sponsorship granted, and the points threshold, for each monthly allocation since April 2016 is published on the Home Office website. Published data on sponsorship applications can be found in the immigration statistics release.

2 May 2018 140710

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, pursuant to the Answer of 27 April to Question 137536, on Engineers and Scientists: Visas, whether the number of engineers and scientists who were refused a Tier 2 (General) Certificate of Sponsorship between May 2015 and November 2017 increased because the annual cap had been reached.

Answered by: Caroline Nokes on 9 May

The specific information requested is not included in statistics published by the Home Office. Published data on sponsorship applications can be found in the immigration statistics release.

After CaSE received the data on Dec-Mar refusals…

1 June 2018 148784

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, how many Tier 2 (General) Restricted Certificates of Sponsorship applications were made in each month since March 2018, the number of Tier 2 (General) Certificates of Sponsorship that have been refused in each month since March 2018 due to the annual cap having been reached;  the number that were refused as a result of the annual cap being reached in each month since March 2018 in each Standard Occupational Classification code.

Answered by: Caroline Nokes answered 6 June

The specific information requested is not included in statistics published by the Home Office. Published data on sponsorship applications can be found in the immigration statistics release.

 

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