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Commonwealth Immigration Visas

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2008

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise two issues relating to Commonwealth migration. The first is the proposal to curtail the visa-less period during which tourists coming on holiday, visitors and people coming for family reunions can stay in this country from the current six months to three months. I do not know whether the British Tourist Authority was consulted on the proposal, but that is the aim of the immigration and nationality directorate.

The second proposal is to abolish ancestral rights—the ability of people from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa to enter the country and be eligible for settlement after five years and to work. That is a remnant of the old patriality situation. People could claim British citizenship if they had a grandparent who was born in this country. Incidentally, that still seems to be the case in Ireland. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can comment on that. People with Irish grandparents can still claim Irish citizenship, whereas we are curtailing that right in this country.

On both issues—curtailment of the visa-less period from six months to three and abolition of ancestral rights—there has been a consultation or a consultation is in progress. The first has finished and the second will be completed in mid-May, but to my mind “a consultation” is what we might call Blair-speak for getting rid of those provisions. People do not hold a consultation unless they want to get rid of the provisions. People have a consultation to show that they have listened and then do what they wanted to do in the first place, after the consultation. That is a very British way of doing things—polite and meaningless consultation.

I want to make it clear that I oppose both proposals, because they weaken a Commonwealth tie to which I and many other hon. Members are strongly attached, to which the Government say that they are strongly attached and to which a large section of our population is attached. I am referring to people with relatives or other ties, particularly to the old Commonwealth—people, incidentally, who vote.

That Commonwealth attachment works both ways: the other countries are attached to us as well, and New Zealand, which I want to concentrate on today, is more attached than most. It is a relationship from which we all benefit—both the Commonwealth country and we in Britain. In fact, we benefit more than most. I would like to remind the House of the contribution made to this country and this economy by New Zealanders. One goes back to people who could have claimed the same patrial rights and the same ancestor rights. I am thinking of Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Rutherford, Dan Davin, Sir Geoffrey Cox, Len Cook—the former national statistician—and hundreds of lawyers, teachers, accountants and doctors, from McIndoe downwards, all of whom have made a big contribution to this country. Do we want to close off that free market in people, from which we and the other countries benefit?

Let us consider New Zealand literature. Practically everybody I find on the Wikipedia list of great New Zealand writers—I also have a long list of great New Zealand artists; of course, those lists are subject to revision, like everything else on Wikipedia—has spent a period in this country learning their craft, working with British authors and perfecting their skills, because London has been a focus for writers from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and so on, from Janet Frame downwards.

Do we want to curtail that type of contact? Should we not be strengthening those ties, rather than weakening them? IND officials—Home Official officials—seem to me to want to weaken the ties, because they have been saying to Commonwealth diplomats who have been consulted on the proposals, “The concepts of immigration and Commonwealth that this visa”—the ancestral visa—“route is linked to are outdated.” I do not think that they are outdated. They are important, they are living and they are vital. However, Home Office officials claim that their Ministers periodically ask them why those visas remain and they say that, when they are asked, they do not have “a robust answer” on the unique value added for the UK. That is more a comment on the IQ or the experience of the officials than it is on reality.

First, I declare an interest as someone who, like many of us, has relatives in Australia. Does not this measure show, as my hon. Friend is rightly explaining, a lack of understanding of history? Both Australia and New Zealand have always been there for this country when we have been under threat. It also shows a lack of understanding of the real dynamic of the current relationship at all levels—he has mentioned culture, business and sport. It goes right the way through the economy and is growing even further under the excellent premiership of Helen Clark in New Zealand and as a result of the very welcome election of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister of Australia.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. Both those Prime Ministers, but particularly Helen Clark, are concerned about this development. A robust answer to Ministers’ questions would involve not only the contribution that people make in that two-way trade, but the flexibility, skills and adaptability that people who come here from Australia and New Zealand contribute to our work force.

That contribution does not seem to be recognised by Home Office officials. It is reported that diplomats were “left in no doubt that neither officials nor Minister Byrne considered themselves bound to New Zealand by any historical ties.” It is clear that none of them was at the opening of the New Zealand war memorial in 2006 by our then Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, and by the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, which affirms those strong emotional ties. I find it appalling that such a comment can be made in the process of the discussions, because there are ties not only of ancestry and history but in the form of the contributions made by Australia, New Zealand, Canada and even South Africa in two world wars and in other wars since. That may be felt more strongly by an older generation. I represent the “wheeze” generation, whereas the Minister represents the whizzkid generation—I am a “wheeze” kid. The feeling that I have described may appeal more to an older generation, but it is still strong and still important and it is still felt across the board in this country, but each of the proposals is an affront to that feeling.

Let me examine first the proposal to reduce the visa-less period for visitors from six months to three. We must not forget that the New Zealand visitors who will be affected by that come a long way. It is a journey of 13,000 or 14,000 miles; it is not a day trip with a pensioner’s pass, such as the ones that I am now beginning to make around the country. It is a long journey and it merits a long stay. For many people it is often a retirement journey—a renewal of roots and contacts, a renewal of family connections.

Above all, those who come here are paying for themselves. They are not coming here to live on the system. When I first came back from New Zealand with a New Zealand wife, we were deluged with streams of visitors who all said, “Don’t worry, I’ve brought a sleeping bag. I’ll sleep on the floor.” Clearly, there is a great deal of living on the land, but there is no living on social security. After all, they are paying for themselves and they will want to go back to their home country. They are visiting this country, and it is unnecessary to curtail those visits from six months to three.

There has been no indication of problems being caused by New Zealanders staying for the full six months. Are they growing and selling illicit kiwi fruit on some sort of black market? Are they preparing and merchandising their own brand of Spates beer? That beer was always labelled as “Man of the South”, a tough image, but calling a beer “Man of the South” in this country would make it seem effeminate: it should be “Man of the North”.

There is no indication that they have been indulging in that kind of illicit activity. They are not even going underground, hiding from the authorities and fomenting discontent by telling people that there is a better land. It certainly is a better land far, far away—so why should they stay here? A certain degree of disgruntlement is justified, but there is no indication that those people are a threat or abusing their time here. No evidence has been produced to that effect, and there is every indication that they want to go back to that better land because it is indeed better.

The length of visit seems not to suit the convenience of the immigration and nationality directorate. However, if it is curtailed it is certain to produce retaliation on British tourists in New Zealand and Australia. There is no indication of a problem, but there is every indication of huge benefits resulting from the relationship.

I turn to the ancestral visa, which produces the same kind of benefits. Descendants of British citizens have the right to come here, the right to work and, after five years, the right to become citizens. Again, there is no indication of a problem, so why is it being reviewed—unless it is a kind of administrative tidying up?

When one considers the number of such visas being given, nine out of 10 go to white Commonwealth citizens. That cannot be fair. It rests on the old patriality clause, which ensured that white Commonwealth citizens were spared the rigours of increasing immigration enforcement. A provision that indirectly allows white Commonwealth citizens rights that black Commonwealth citizens do not have is not fair.

Those are our ancestral rights, and they are quite specific. I agree with my hon. Friend on equality; it is unfair, but there has always been an ancestral right. I am asking for its maintenance, but it is already attenuated. It is a right to work, and a right to citizenship after five years, and I want it to be maintained. I am talking about our relationship with the older Commonwealth, and particularly the benefits that we get from such countries as New Zealand.

I have to point out that one cannot speak of being swamped by ancestral visitors; there were only 8,490 of them in 2006, a 3 per cent. increase on 2005. Admittedly, those figures were prepared by a New Zealander, but that does not detract from the figures given by Len Cook. I do not see how it can detract from their accuracy. The figures may be small, but in terms of long-standing Commonwealth relationships they have an enormous emotional impact.

What is the reason for the proposals? My answer—I hope that the Minister will comment on this—is that this piece of what I might call perfidious Albion, or perfidious pommery, is happening because the poms are scared that immigration is becoming a major issue. The number of immigrants, particularly from the European Union, which now has 25 member states, is rising rapidly. In 2005 there were 117,000 immigrants, and in 2006 there were 145,000. That was not expected. The numbers were underestimated. It is clearly causing problems and concerns. However, those problems and concerns have arisen because of pressures on social services, education and the health service. It is an indication that we are not spending enough locally, not an indication of major problems with immigration.

Local authorities, particularly, complain that they have not been provided with adequate funds to cope with that influx. However, we have a Government who need to show that they are doing something. They want to do something but cannot do anything about the major component because they cannot stop it—it is caused by people with European citizenship—so they are going to deal with it by taking it out on old and new Commonwealth countries. That will lead to a number of problems. For instance, with Pakistani and Indian doctors and ethnic restaurant cooks all being controlled, the two problems that I have raised today will occur. The proposals are totally unreasonable. The problem is caused by European immigration. I do not criticise such people. Poles are hard-working. We even have a Polish chief executive in Grimsby; we, too, move rapidly with the times.

It is as if the middle of the dam has broken and collapsed and the tide is coming in, and the Government propose repairing the side walls by trying to exclude Commonwealth citizens. I hope that I am wrong. I hope that the Minister can explain why it is being proposed. I hope that he will disown those views on the Commonwealth that I cited, and that he will tell us that, after consultation, the two policies will be rejected and will not go ahead.

Order. I would call the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, but she needs the permission of the hon. Member whose debate it is and the Minister.

The Government pride themselves, particularly under their brilliant new phalanx of Home Office Ministers, on firm and effective immigration control. However, for such control to be acceptable, it has to be fair—and, specifically, it must not be race-based. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell)—he is an hon. Friend—said that we have always had ancestral rights. We have not. I remember with some clarity the patriality clause being introduced, mainly because I used to work for the Home Office. It was brought in when the Government sought to bear down on Commonwealth immigration.

It seems to me that the sweeping away of the clause is long overdue. I do not believe that it would survive legal challenge. If we look at the figures, we will see that in 2004, out of 9,397 visas issued, more than 8,000 were to people from the white Commonwealth, and most of the rest were from Zimbabwe. In 2005, out of 10,143 visas issued, nearly 10,000 were to people from the white Commonwealth; in 2006, out of 9,741 visas, more than 9,000 were to people from the white Commonwealth; and the most recent figures show that out of 8,380 visas issued, 8,083 went to people from the white Commonwealth.

The clause has provided a route by which members of the white Commonwealth gain rights and access that are denied to members of the non-white Commonwealth. It is archaic, but not in the sense that it goes back hundreds of years—it is one of the many indefensible and incoherent aspects of immigration control. I welcome the fact that Ministers, in seeking to revise, improve and make immigration control more coherent, are eliminating the clause. I believe that if persons from the rest of the Commonwealth—Africa, the Caribbean and Asia—realise how disproportionate the figures for the handing out of the visas are, they would understand the nature of the clause.

I should begin by expressing my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for securing this debate this afternoon. This is the first debate that we have had on one part of the Green Paper, “The Path to Citizenship”, which the Home Office published earlier in the year.

The House knows that 2008 is a big year for immigration reform. We are comprehensively changing how the system is policed and how we judge who has the right to come to this country and who has not—we debated the points system at length in the House last week. As those two sets of changes will come into force this year, I personally felt that it was time that the House turned its attention to the unfinished business of migration reform in the past 30 or 40 years.

Any student of immigration legislation since the second world war will know that the busiest periods of change in legislation for immigration reform were, first, in response to decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s and, secondly, in response to the asylum crisis that we inherited from the Conservatives in the late 1990s. Since 1945, Governments and the House have never applied themselves systematically to thinking from first principles about who should be able to come and stay, and what we should ask of people to whom we grant the great privilege of British citizenship. The Green Paper attempts to do just that. Many of the ideas will be wrong or will need to be revised, and plenty of them will benefit from the House’s attention, which is why they were published in a Green Paper.

Before I deal with the detail of my hon. Friend’s remarks, I should put on record my thanks and gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), who has bent my ear for some weeks and months about some of the proposals on immigration reform and more generally. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby touched on some of the changes that we are proposing for tourist visas. That is part of the proposed reform to how we judge who is allowed to come to the UK in the first place—I shall not detain the House with another discursion into the iniquities of the points system because my hon. Friend raised the point about how we are changing short-term visas.

My starting point for that reform is an analysis that says that the visa system was invented for the 1970s, which was a different era, and I do not believe that it works any more, so it should be changed. It does not work for business people who want to come to do business in the UK, or for family visitors, many of whom come to see me at my advice bureau in Birmingham each month. There is a strong argument for reforming how we offer tourist visas to the world, simply because something like 1.1 per cent. of people who apply for such visas stay for longer than three months.

We cannot think about the question in isolation from the changes that we want to make to youth exchange and youth mobility schemes. That has been an issue on which there have been enormously important exchanges between Britain and Australasia. I should declare my first interest at this stage: when I finished my A-levels, I spent four or five months working my way around Australia. At the tender age of 18, it taught me a great deal about life, and it certainly gave me an enormous love for Australia. When the Government publish some of the changes to the youth mobility schemes under the points system later this year, the House will see how clearly determined we are to ensure that there is a continued opportunity for people from Commonwealth countries, but in particular from Australia and New Zealand, to come to the UK and spend a bit of time learning about the country from which many of their ancestors came.

Will the Minister assure us that he will give serious consideration to any representations from the Governments of our friends in Australia and New Zealand?

I am delighted to give my right hon. Friend that absolute assurance. I was able to meet the Australian high commissioner shortly before he returned to Canberra recently. Such people are important friends of the United Kingdom; we have enormous regard for, and pay attention to, their advice and counsel. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby not to see changes to the tourist visa system in isolation from the wider changes that we are making on youth mobility, but the picture will become clearer in the next month or two when we publish relevant proposals.

My hon. Friend’s second point, which I believe was the substance of his remarks, was about Commonwealth visas. Again, I welcome his comments. By publishing the Green Paper, the Government were attempting to go back to first principles and to set out a coherent story on the values and attributes that we want newcomers to sign up to if they want to become British citizens for the long term. I could not profess to have many of the answers to those questions, so I spent three or four months going around the United Kingdom to talk to people from all over the country about what values we think are important in the country, what values we want newcomers to sign up to, and what is the British deal that we want migrants to buy into if they want to make the United Kingdom their long-term home. Four values or standards were paramount across the United Kingdom: the ability to speak English to a certain level, the aptitude and attitude of hard work and paying tax, obeying the law, and making an effort to integrate with the wider community.

Some values, such as those of blood and history that my hon. Friend highlighted, would not necessarily have emerged from that survey of British citizens, but there is a good argument for putting them centre stage in immigration reform, which is the point at which I should declare my second interest: I am the great-great-grandson of someone who was born in Australia—they were born in Kulpara in South Australia. My other grandparents are Irish, so I would be able to apply for Irish citizenship in due course. There is a good case for saying that when we revise the values that we want to put centre stage in immigration and citizenship reform, those values, ties and historic bonds that my hon. Friend talked about should be part of the deal. I listened carefully to what he said this afternoon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was absolutely right to say that the policy dates back to 1971. If one reads Hansard reports of the debates on the Immigration Act 1971, one will see that they were contentious and, in parts, coloured by the language of race. It is true that, overwhelmingly, people who take that route to settlement are from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada—something like 80 or 90 per cent. Our ambition is to listen to the debate on the Green Paper before bringing back a comprehensive Bill to consolidate all immigration reform back to 1971. That will involve a lengthy debate in the House and in Committee, and provide an opportunity to fix a number of historical wrongs in our immigration system. However, I hope that it will also provide a chance to reinforce and ensure that the values that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby talked about are part and parcel of the wider set of values that we have heard about from the British public, which we will seek to consolidate in the form of citizenship.

As I said, this is unfinished business, and it is down to this Government to finish the job. I hope that we will be able to do so in the next 18 months.