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“Go Home or Face Arrest” Campaign

Volume 568: debated on Wednesday 9 October 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon for this short debate, Mr Pritchard.

I want people to imagine a situation and just think about it for a minute—a van pulls a billboard through the streets, telling illegal immigrants to “Go home or face arrest”. Just imagine it, and picture it. This is not 1940s occupied Europe; it is not even one of those National Front campaigns from the 1970s. This is the United Kingdom in 2013, where a van pulls a billboard through the streets of London telling people to “Go home or face arrest”. Just in case people did not quite get it, what else was on that poster? It was a huge set of handcuffs. And just to make it even more provocative, this van was trailed through some of the most racially diverse and multicultural parts of London. That was almost as stupid as it was grotesque.

What sort of response did that action get? Well, I do not think that I have seen a Government campaign that has been so roundly condemned. I could not even start to read out the lists of organisations, individuals and groups that were overwhelmingly opposed to it. Suffice to say that it managed to create a coalition of everybody from the Deputy Prime Minister to Nigel Farage, with the Business Secretary flung in for good measure, with his acerbic comment that it was “stupid and offensive”. As I say, this particular campaign united everybody from the Deputy Prime Minister to Nigel Farage, such was the opposition to it.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. Does he agree that this campaign has caused division, and also fear in the minds of the citizens who freely walk on the streets that they will be stopped and perhaps harassed by the police and other agencies?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because he reminds me of something else that went on that week, and he is right to mention it. Not only did we have the grotesque sight of a van pulling a billboard in London telling people to “Go home”, but it was part of a joint operation whereby, for the first time in years if not decades, we had racial profiling at London underground stations as part of UK Border Agency operations. What on earth was going to happen next? Where was this going to go after that?

Of course, today we had the landmark ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority, which has effectively banned this stupid and grotesque campaign. I have seen the Minister who is here today go round—

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that, because I saw the Minister this morning, going from studio to studio, defending this decision. I think that he took some comfort from the fact that the ASA only banned it because it was misleading, not because it was offensive or racist. However, that is cold comfort to the Minister, because the ASA said that this campaign was reminiscent of the anti-immigrant campaigns of the ’70s and that people would find it offensive.

The Minister is scowling. The saddest thing about these TV appearances this morning is that he is still prepared to defend this absurd campaign and to revise it and bring it back to us, once again, aping his boss, the Home Secretary, who made the same remarks in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. We might see the son of hate vans in the streets soon.

I apologise for missing the start of the debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not just on securing this debate, but securing the decision from the ASA to coincide with it. Has he seen the reply to my parliamentary question about the cost of the pilot project, which was put at £10,000? Given the pressure on the public purse, does he not think that that £10,000 could have been used better in some other area of the immigration field, which we know the Minister is keen to repair?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I must have missed his parliamentary question, which is remiss of me, because I usually look out for every one of his parliamentary utterances and questions. Of course, he is right. The £10,000 could have been better spent than on that absurd campaign with a hate van, trailing through the streets of London with a message saying, “Go home”.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the Minister can hardly take any comfort from the ASA’s statement that the Government were using misleading statements? They were basically saying things that were not true on a van being trailed through areas of mixed ethnicity, which was bound to cause trouble.

My hon. Friend is right. I cannot remember any campaign that has effectively been banned by the ASA. It is the first time in my 12 years in the House that I have seen anything like this misleading information. The Minister should be thoroughly embarrassed about what happened this morning, but instead we have seen the parody of him going through the news studios, defending these awful, appalling vans.

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that all vans advertising the breaking of the law may put fear into the hearts of those who may be breaking it? For example, people could go to prison if they did not pay their television licence.

That is a good point. I want to come on to such points, which are important, about how the message was communicated and observed by the target groups. If I miss that point, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman once again.

These vans have been correctly labelled, in common parlance, as hate vans or racist vans, and that is how we have started to refer to them. We could not find a terminology to express our horror and disgust at the sight of these things and we were right to label them as such.

I agree with the Minister that illegal immigration must be tackled. I think that all hon. Members here agree with that. It is wrong and the Government must do something to deal with it. However, they have to deal with such issues reasonably, in a measured and mannered way. Probably every hon. Member in this Chamber agrees that there should be voluntary return. If people want to go home, let us assist them.

Can we also send out the message of the importance of immigration and how people benefit, both in host countries and countries of origin? The Philippines, for example, with about 9 million of its citizens migrating abroad for work, has a national migrants day. I encourage hon. Members to read Philippe Legrain’s book, “Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them”, and to see the benefits that immigration generally brings to all societies, where it happens.

My hon. Friend gets to the heart of so many of our debates on immigration, including the philosophical debate about the value and worth of immigration. We never hear about that from this Government. They do not accept for a minute that immigration is valuable. It is a problem that has to be managed, and this Government in particular say that it has to be managed in a more hostile, aggressive, robust way. As we head towards the new immigration Bill, which contains some thoroughly nasty horrors, we will see much more of this from this Government and it will get ever worse.

I have given way already and shall try to make some progress. I may come back to the hon. Gentleman later.

The hate vans, or racist vans, were ranting at people through a billboard with a telephone number on it, instead of communicating with them reasonably, trying to get a measured response and trying to ensure that people can return voluntarily. We should be helping them—assisting them—not shouting at them and giving a telephone number on a billboard. That is not the way to deal with some of the keen and sensitive issues to do with immigration. However, there is no way that we will get through to this Government on such points.

The Minister knows how hard life is for illegal immigrants. Life is desperate for illegal immigrants in this country. They cannot work—certainly, not legally—and they do not have access to benefits. They live a life of destitution, in fear of being detected. That is the reality of life for illegal immigrants in the United Kingdom, not the Daily Mail version, in which they are living the life of Riley, at our expense, laughing behind our backs, which sometimes I think that the Minister believes. It is a life of desperate destitution and fear.

It is about fear and that is what is being communicated. We have to look underneath the stupid message—the silly “Go home or face arrest”—and find out what it is intended to do and to achieve. Stupid poster though it is, there is something fundamental underneath this. The campaign is trying to engender a sense of fear and exaggerate the problem, to politicise it and appeal to the basest political instincts. That is a dangerous game to play. That is where it leads to real issues, tensions and anxieties in our communities. This Government should stop that and ensure that it is never done again. These hate vans and racist vans are touring our country.

Let us gloss over the obvious point that those who are notionally targeted by the campaign probably cannot read English and probably have no idea what the vans are trying to say. If they do read English, the first thing they will do is go right underground and try to hide away, having been made aware, thanks to the Government, of a more aggressive campaign that is out to get them.

Let us be generous and say that this campaign gets through to its target audience. Mr Pritchard, imagine that you are an illegal immigrant, walking down your street in your multiracial, multi-diverse community. There is something in the back of your mind and you are thinking, “There’s something I’ve got to do. What is it? I can’t figure out what it is.” Then, all of a sudden, one of these vans comes along, telling you to go home and you say, “That’s it! That’s what I forgot to do! All this time I’ve been in this country, I’ve forgotten to go home whence I came.” What nonsense. [Interruption.] No wonder you are laughing, Mr Pritchard, as is every other hon. Member. That is how nonsensical a concept this is. Imagine that.

Order. For the record, unless I misheard the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that I show any emotion when chairing debates. I am completely impartial.

I am glad that that is resolved. Thank you, Mr Pritchard.

Come on, let us figure out what it is really all about. I think that all hon. Members in this Chamber can be candid. This has little, if anything, to do with illegal immigration, but everything to do with the rise of the UK Independence party in the opinion polls. It is about this Conservative Government’s fear of the electoral challenge from UKIP and the fact that it has made immigration a key plank of its appeal. The Government are now engaged in a desperate race to the bottom with Nigel Farage, to see who can be the hardest on immigration. I gently say to the Minister that he will never out-UKIP UKIP. UKIP is the master of nasty, pernicious, right-wing populism, and it is to the Conservative party’s credit that it will never beat UKIP in a race to the bottom on such issues, regardless of how hard the Conservative party might try.

What did Nigel Farage do when he saw the campaign? He laughed in the Home Secretary’s face and mumbled something about the Big Brother state—imagine the campaign’s target laughing in the Home Secretary’s face. I bet Nigel Farage went home that evening and, like a badge of honour, knew that he had managed to move the Government significantly on to his territory, where he will decisively beat them on such issues. This is UKIP UK. UKIP does not have even one Member of Parliament, but the whole political world down here is now spinning around the world of the fruitcakes and loonies, as the Prime Minister so cleverly, clearly and accurately described them. That is where we are now: the reality of UKIP UK. UKIP is pulling the strings and the Conservative party is dancing to it.

People might wonder why I, as a Scots Nat, am concerned about these vans in London. First, they appal me as a citizen of this country, and they should appal every decent, reasonable person. They are appalling and should not be here. But the Government brought the campaign to Scotland. When I first saw the vans, I immediately wrote to the Home Secretary asking whether there were any plans to bring them to Scotland. I said, “We do not want the vans in Scotland. We have fantastic relations throughout every single community, and we value those relations. The vans would be most unwelcome.” I did not get the courtesy of a reply. I therefore wrote again to the Home Secretary asking why I did not get a reply to my letter. Coincidentally, I got a reply from the Minister yesterday—it might be that there just happens to be a debate. I say this not to the Minister but to his officials: get your act together, for goodness’ sake.

Order. Remarks should be made to the Chair, not directly to officials. I am sure the hon. Gentleman recalls that, as he has been here for many years.

I am grateful, Mr Pritchard. It must have just slipped my mind.

I ask the Minister to ask his officials to ensure that they reply, for goodness’ sake, to Members of Parliament on sensitive issues such as this. Will the Minister pass on to his officials that it is not good enough that Members of Parliament are not responded to until they decide to hold a debate on an issue to ensure that they get that reply? That certainly seems to be consistent with what is happening in the Home Office.

In the meantime, between my writing to the Home Secretary and where we are today, the full suite of “Go home” materials arrived in Glasgow. The UK Border Agency office in Brand street, Glasgow now plays host to those appalling materials. We do not have UKIP in Scotland. In Scotland, we loathe UKIP to the bottom of our ballot boxes. UKIP does not even retain its deposits. Nigel Farage had to get a police escort the last time he visited Edinburgh. UKIP is alien to our cultural and political values. The campaign jars with our sense of community, and it is something that we just do not want in Scotland.

The Minister should take his battle with UKIP elsewhere and leave Scotland out of it, because I do not want people in Scotland who go to the Glasgow Brand street office to be met with those materials. What do those materials say? Before people are even sitting down, they are asked to think about going home, with the inquiry “Is life hard here?” They are then told “Going home is simple,” before being told by another poster with a photograph of a plane:

“This plane can take you home. We can book the tickets.”

On the way out there is a dangling plane, which suggests “This is the plane that can take you home.” That is absolutely disgusting and contrary to how we would like to address such issues sensitively, and it makes me more determined than ever that, with independence, Scotland will always get the Government whom we vote for. We will not have a Conservative Government with their one lone panda of a Member of Parliament ruling the roost over our country and imposing such nonsense on my nation, and thank goodness we will secure that next year and end such Tory rubbish in our Glasgow offices. Minister, please keep Scotland well out of this.

What happens now? We have had the ASA ruling today, and we are all very pleased. It looks like the end of these appalling hate vans—these racist vans. The son of hate vans might be coming, I do not know, but perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he is encouraged by what he has seen over the past few months. When the Government were first challenged, they seemed to be able to pull out some sort of statistic showing that the vans were actually working. I do not know what on earth that statistic was based on, but perhaps the Minister could tell us about how the vans were supposed to be working.

My time is up, sorry.

Hopefully we will see the end of the vans, which I think were a testing exercise in advance of the next immigration Bill. The Government floated the policy just to see how much they would get away with, how nasty and pernicious they could be, in trying to get their immigration Bill through. That is exactly what they were doing. Everyone in this room has a concern on immigration, and we will be questioning the Minister when the immigration Bill is introduced, because it will contain some horrible stuff that we must confront. We are still part of the UK, and we will be subject to the Bill. We do not want it, but unfortunately we will be subject to it. The Bill is contrary to everything that we are trying to achieve for positive, good relations in Scotland, but we will be subject to a Conservative Government’s immigration Bill.

How did the Conservatives get this past the Liberals? I want to hear the Minister’s take on this. How on earth did they get the Liberals to sign up to something like this? I heard that the former Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), was not available, so the Conservatives decided to proceed any way. After what we have heard from the Deputy Prime Minister, with whom I know he worked closely, the Conservatives managed somehow to get the policy through the Liberals and into the campaign. Hopefully the Liberals will veto anything like this in future so we have no repeats.

The one thing I want from the Minister, and I know I will not get it, is an apology for exposing this nation to a nasty, pernicious and grotesque campaign. I know I will not get that apology, but perhaps I will get a small acknowledgement that there was something wrong with the campaign, that it was not right and that it was inconsistent with the good community relations that we are trying to achieve. I just want an acknowledgement, but somehow I do not think I will get that, either. Let us hope that we never see the likes of this again, but I have a feeling that it is just the beginning.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) asked me lots of questions and has not left me a great deal of time to answer them, but I will do my best. If colleagues will forgive me, I shall address my answers to him, as it is his debate. If I have chance, I will take interventions from others, but it is right that I try to address his questions.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I, from the sound of his remarks, will not agree on the merits of the campaign, but it is worth setting out our thinking, because the campaign is not what he suggests. It is not focused at migrants; it is focused at people who are in the United Kingdom illegally—people who are here and breaking our laws. The campaign is not about migrants.

The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)—I apologise again, because I always mangle the name of his constituency—said that the Government do not welcome people to Britain, which is not true. Every single time we make a speech or publish something, we make it very clear that Britain is open to migrants from across the world: people who want to come here to work, to study and to make a contribution. That message, which is welcoming to people who want to follow our laws and rules, is perfectly compatible with a message that says, “For those people who come here and do not follow the rules, and who want to break our laws, we should be equally firm about telling them that we want to enforce those laws.” Frankly, if people are here illegally, they should go back to their country of origin. There is nothing wrong with suggesting that they do so. If it is as bad here at the moment as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire suggests, the obvious question is why people are in this country illegally and not returning to their country of origin. We have worked closely with community groups and those involved in supporting migrants to help them to deliver that message sensitively.

The campaign to which the hon. Gentleman refers was a pilot, and we were trying to give a tough message about what will happen if people do not leave the country voluntarily: they will leave themselves open to arrest, detention and enforced removal. But the message also said that there is something that those people can do: they can contact the Home Office, and we will assist them in returning to their country of origin voluntarily, perhaps supporting them to do so. A significant number of people, more than 29,000, do that each year. That way of addressing the problem is greatly preferable, and it is much better for the taxpayer.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the cost. The cost of the pilot was just £10,000. If an individual who was in the country illegally chooses to go home as a result of the pilot, it will have paid for itself. We are doing a full evaluation. At the end of the three-month period, which is a reasonable period because of the time it takes to get travel documents, we will do the evaluation and then make a decision about the pilot.

However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the first voluntary departure as a result of the pilot took place on 2 August. It was that of a Pakistani national who had been living in the UK illegally since December. Interestingly—colleagues might find this slightly ironic—he did not see the ad van itself; he saw a picture of it in The Guardian newspaper. He texted the number and we arranged to support him for his flight home, so at least one individual has left the country as a result of the pilot. From a cost perspective—something that I think the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs has mentioned—the pilot has already paid for itself. If we had had to arrest, detain and enforce the removal of one individual, it would have cost the taxpayer probably the best part of £15,000, so from a cost perspective, if we can persuade people to go home voluntarily, that is clearly the right thing to do.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire referred to the Advertising Standards Authority, but I do not think he accurately set out its view. It was very clear today and did not uphold any of the complaints about the vans or the allegations that the vans were offensive or racist. It said:

“We considered that, in context, the claim would be interpreted as a message regarding the immigration status of those in the country illegally...not related to their race or ethnicity.”

It concluded that

“the poster was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress”

and was

“unlikely to incite or exacerbate racial hatred and tensions in multicultural was not irresponsible and did not contain anything...likely to condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour.”

The van referred to someone’s area, and the hon. Gentleman is right about the ASA’s view that people would interpret that as being quite a narrow area. For example, in a London borough, people would assume that it meant the London borough. Since our statistics were from a slightly larger area, the ASA said that it was misleading. We have therefore agreed not to use those advertisements in the form that was used.

The ASA did not support the outlandish claims that I think the hon. Gentleman suggested. He should also be aware that his views are not supported by the public. The poll conducted by YouGov on 13 August found that 66% of those polled in the United Kingdom did not consider the poster to be racist, so two thirds of those polled do not agree with him. Also, the comprehensive poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft and published on 1 September found that 79% of those polled supported the messaging in our posters, because they can see that giving a firm message to people who are in the country illegally is perfectly compatible with being welcoming and supportive of those who come to our country legally, follow our rules and comply with the law.

The hon. Gentleman got very heated on that point, but I do not think that he has the measure of public opinion on this issue. People want to welcome those who come here for the right reasons, but the public want to deal firmly with people who should not be here. The advertising campaign was squarely aimed at those who are in the country illegally and have no right to be here. Asking people in that context to return to their country of origin is perfectly reasonable.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Scotland reporting centre. He should know that that pilot ran from 29 July, which is prior to his letter, to 4 October. It did not use any of the materials that we used for the ad van campaign. A significant proportion of those using the reporting centre are people who have no right to be in the United Kingdom. They should not be here and should be returning to their country of origin. Partly, the message is a tough one, but the other side of the message tells people that we can support their return and help them to go home.

Our immigration enforcement officers work closely with many communities in the United Kingdom. They work with faith and voluntary groups that know of people who want to return home, but need support to do that. They do not want to be arrested or detained; they want to come forward in such a way that they avoid that experience, and I think that that is perfectly reasonable.

The hon. Gentleman asked what we might do in future. As I said, we are evaluating the campaign to see how successful it has been in driving up significantly the number of voluntary returns. We will make that information available and then decide whether to continue.

On the street operations that we conducted, the hon. Gentleman referred to racial profiling. I absolutely refute that. Our officers do not have the legal power, and we do not have the ability, to do that. We use intelligence to identify where to run the operations, and when we encounter people, we decide whether to talk to them based on their behaviour, not their race, ethnicity or appearance. I absolutely refute his allegation that we are involved in racial profiling in street operations, and it is not supported by the evidence. Again, it is worth saying that the general public support the work that we do in enforcing illegal working laws and in making sure that people obey the law.

Our officers have a difficult job to do. I have been out with them on operations. They take their responsibilities and the intelligence seriously, and they are well aware of the legal environment. They have proper briefings before the operations and they deal with the people they encounter sensitively. I have seen operations where, for example, we have encountered people who have done nothing wrong, and our officers have dealt with them very sensitively and handled a difficult situation well. I do not think that the way in which the hon. Gentleman characterises the issue reflects the reality on the ground. It is hard and difficult work. Just as the police have a difficult job in enforcing criminal laws, our immigration enforcement officers have to enforce immigration laws. They deal with people who should not be in the United Kingdom, and who might not wish to return to their country of origin, but it is important that we enforce the law. It is difficult work and will remain so. It has to be done sensitively, which is what we have been doing.

Nobody is questioning that we are talking about illegal immigrants. We support the idea that there should be no illegal immigrants, but we question the tactics used—for example, when there is forced entry into shops and other places where they cannot find anybody and the intelligence is poor. The small sample of 500 people supporting the idea is not good evidence.

On the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about entry, our officers have to obey the law in the same way as other law enforcement officers. I have attended operations on which we have encountered the “beds in sheds” phenomenon in his part of London, where there are some appalling pieces of accommodation. When we have to gain entry to those properties, we have to work with the local authority. The local authority has to seek a warrant for entry. We have to go through a proper legal process. We have to have evidence and intelligence when we deal with those things, and it is the same when we do illegal working operations. We have to have intelligence; we do not simply do it on a speculative basis. If we have intelligence, we approach people and gather evidence on whether people are working illegally. I make no apology for doing that, because it is not simply about the fact that they are breaking our laws. Employers who employ people illegally undercut legitimate business people. They compete with them unfairly, and we should deal with that.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire both said that they are against illegal immigration. I am glad that they said that. All that the campaign was about was trying something—a pilot—to see whether it was successful. We have been frank about it and we will be guided by the evidence. If the evidence suggests that the pilot has been successful, I might flip the question round and ask why we would not go ahead with a pilot that is successful and that leads to more people leaving the country voluntarily. If the pilot proves unsuccessful, we will not roll it out. It will be based on the evidence. We will analyse the pilot properly.

The evidence from the public is that they support a tough approach. I make no apology for dealing with the concerns of the public. We are not, as was suggested, talking about a recent phenomenon. We said at the general election that we would deal with immigration. We have reduced net migration to the country by a third. We have cracked down on abuse. We have seen an increase in the number of students and skilled workers coming here. We want to give the message that we are open for business for the best and the brightest, but that should be combined with dealing firmly with people who break our immigration laws and either come here illegally or overstay their visa. Those things are compatible, and that is how we wish to continue.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).