Urgent Question: Mòran taing agus madhainn mhath, Mr Speaker. To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the impending deportation of the Brain family from Dingwall.
By convention, Ministers do not usually comment on individual immigration cases on the Floor of the House. However, I am happy to waive that convention today to properly address the question raised by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford).
Kathryn Brain came to the UK in 2011 on a tier 4 visa, which expired in May last year, with her husband and son listed as her dependants. On 25 May last year, Kathryn Brain applied for leave to remain under tier 4 of the points-based system, again with Mr Brain and her son listed as dependants. In June, this was granted to December last year. In December, an application was made for leave to remain under article 8 of the European convention on human rights—the right to a family life—which in March was refused with an out-of-country right of appeal.
In this time it has of course been open to the family to make a tier 2 skilled work application under the points-based system. On 12 April, I exceptionally extended the 28-day grace period after their leave expired, during which a valid tier 2 application could be made, to 11 May. Upon hearing that Mr Brain had submitted a job application with an appropriate employer, I subsequently extended the grace period further on 28 April to the end of this month. We have not yet received an application from the Brain family for leave to remain under the points-based system, but we will consider any application that they make. I am meeting the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber again this afternoon, but he can be assured that the family do not face an imminent risk of immediate deportation.
More broadly, it is important to recognise the UK’s excellent post-study offer. There is no limit on the number of international graduates who can remain in the UK to take up graduate-level work, provided that they secure a graduate job paying an appropriate salary. Since 2010, visa applications from international students to study at Scottish universities are up 9%. I look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman again later today to discuss the matter further.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response, although I must say that the question was to the Home Secretary. After all, it was the Home Secretary who briefed the Chancellor when he responded to my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday.
The family came to this country under the fresh talent initiative that was put in place by the previous Labour Administration in Edinburgh, with the support of the Home Office, for students studying at Scottish universities, who would then qualify for the post-study work visa. That was the commitment that this Government made to those coming to Scotland in 2011. In this case, the Government have taken retrospective action to deny the rights that this family would have been granted under that legislation. It is a breach of trust and of faith from this Government.
I want to help the Minister. The number of people who came under the fresh talent initiative has now dwindled to virtually zero. We are asking the Government to recognise the commitment that the family have made to the highlands and to Scotland. I look specifically to seven-year-old Lachlan, who is in Gaelic medium education in the highlands. He reads and writes in Gaelic, not English. He speaks English, but it is a different thing to be able to be educated in a different language. The thought of deporting that young boy back to Australia, where he will be two years behind his peer group, is shameful. That is where the human rights aspect comes in.
I can tell the Minister today that Kathryn Brain has now been offered a job at the new GlenWyvis distillery in Dingwall. It is a start-up business that will offer a job and prosperity not only to Kathryn, but to others. We need to recognise that the family should be given the right to stay today. Give them the time to qualify for the tier 2 visa. Show some compassion and humanity. All of us should be judged on our actions. For goodness’ sake, Minister, do the right thing today.
I have met the hon. Gentleman to discuss this case previously. He says that I should show compassion and humanity, but he will know that I have already exercised discretion not once but twice in this case on the basis of representations he has made on the family’s behalf. I obviously listened carefully to what he said, and I look forward to meeting him later to hear more about the details that he has relayed to the House this morning and to reflect further on his representations.
I want to correct slightly some of the facts that the hon. Gentleman has presented. He said that the family came here under the fresh talent scheme, which closed in 2008 and was replaced by the post-study work scheme under tier 1. The latter scheme was closed by the coalition Government and that announcement was made on 21 March 2011. From the information that I have, the Brain family arrived in the UK on 14 June 2011. There are clear issues to consider about post-study work opportunities and moving from the tier 4 study route into tier 2. I was pleased to note in the latest figures that I have seen that around 6,000 people did that in the last year for which information is available.
It is important that the Scottish Government continue to play their part in creating an enterprise economy, using their powers to create jobs and opportunities for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and to provide a route for people who study at our universities to get graduate-level employment. The previous arrangements simply did not work. They allowed abuse to take place and resulted in people moving into low-skilled employment, not reflecting the education that they obtained. However, I wish to reflect further on the comments that the hon. Gentleman has made to me today, and I look forward to meeting him later.
There is nobody more passionate about having a robust immigration policy than me, but I just wonder whether the Minister would agree that this may be a case where the Government are being too harsh on people from outside the European Union, as a direct consequence of having free movement of people from within the European Union.
I say to my hon. Friend that when dealing with issues of migration it is important that we take steps both outside Europe, where the majority of net migration continues to come from, and inside Europe. Therefore, our approach is to look at this in both ways, but, as I have indicated, I will certainly reflect on the further representations that are made to me.
First, I would like to express my heartfelt sympathy to the Brain family, who came here in good faith and have been let down by this Government. Their case is yet another that highlights the chaos of the immigration system under this Government. The Brains’ situation will be familiar to many Members in this House, who will have seen their own constituents faced with deportation owing to changes in the immigration rules. Let us be clear about what is involved here. This family came to the UK on a Government scheme specifically designed to attract people to relocate here. They entered legally, they have integrated into their community and they have fully embraced its way of life. That they should now be faced with deportation because of Government changes shows the problems caused by the constant chopping and changing of the immigration rules by the Home Office. These changes are retrospectively made, in a desperate attempt to meet targets on net migration that the Government have consistently missed and show no sign of meeting any time soon—it just adds insult to injury.
The highlands of Scotland have for centuries faced the problem of depopulation. The population of Scotland has barely grown in the past 100 years. As the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) correctly said yesterday; the Brains’ case is not an issue of immigration, but of emigration. Our immigration system must allow us the flexibility to meet the needs of our communities. It must not focus solely on an arbitrary number put in place from Whitehall. Of course there must be rules to govern immigration, and it is important that these rules are enforced, but this is also an issue of compassion. Should we really be uprooting a young family, who came to the UK legally and in good faith, from the lives they have built here? Should we be deporting children whose whole lives have been here, to a country they barely know?
I would like to ask the Minister a few questions. Why do the Brain family no longer qualify under the original visa terms under which they came to the UK? I understand what the Minister said about extending the application process, but given that these terms were changed by the Government, what support has the Home Office provided to assist this family? Why is the Home Office making this an issue of immigration, as opposed to one of emigration, as under the original scheme?
I say to the hon. Lady that the help provided has been the discretion that has already been applied in this case, not once, but twice, in allowing extra time for the family to regularise their stay. It is therefore completely incorrect to suggest that we have taken a blinkered approach or have simply applied a strict one, although she has sought to criticise us for that.
On post-study work, it is important that the House understands that we made these changes not to target some simple number, but to deal with abuse in system, which this Government inherited from the last Labour Government. We had students arriving in this country who could not speak English and were using this route as a mechanism not to study but to work. We have, however, shown that we are prepared to listen in this case. In continuing to reflect on it, we have already taken representations from the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, who is representing his constituents. As I have indicated, that is what we will do, but I make the point that the family have known for at least five years what the requirements would be. They have known of the need to get a graduate-level job. We wish them success in securing that, and obviously I look forward to hearing further representations on this matter.
This case highlights the fact that Scotland’s migration needs are really very different from those of the south of England. I can assure the Minister that the Scottish National party Government in Edinburgh have created an enterprise economy. What we need now is for the UK Government to do their bit by bringing in a sensible migration policy that will enable Scotland to attract and keep the talent that we need, particularly in areas such as the highlands. When will this Government recognise that Scotland’s migration needs are different? In particular, will the Minister tell me when his Government will reintroduce the post-study work visa, bearing in mind that all parties in the Scottish Parliament, including the Ruth Davidson party, support that?
Our immigration policy is formed on the basis of the whole of the UK and of the needs of the UK in attracting skilled and talented people to contribute to our continued economic growth, which is what I have underlined to other hon. Members in the answers that I have given. On the shortage of skills, we do recognise and reflect on the fact that there is a separate shortage occupation list on which we prioritise the visas that are given to people coming to work in the United Kingdom. The reason we took the step that we did in relation to post-study work is that we saw abuse of it. Some have referred to the fresh talent scheme. Well, the information from the Scottish Government’s social research in 2008 indicated that only 44% of applicants had remained in Scotland at the end of their two years’ leave under the scheme and that many people had come to London and the south-east rather than staying in Scotland.
We have heard a great deal about the fresh talent scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fresh talent scheme that was run under the previous Labour Government was indeed flawed and did not lead to skilled migrants settling in Scotland?
Order. That is all very well, but it has nothing to do with Government policy now, or the particular case with which we are dealing. We must deal with things in an orderly way.
The Brain family enjoys support throughout the highlands and islands. I have heard of many similar cases over my years as a Member of Parliament. The Minister is absolutely right to say that we must have a system that works for the whole of the United Kingdom, but the truth of the matter is that the current system does not work for communities such as those in the highlands and islands, the rural north-west of England, Cornwall or mid-Wales. Will he look again at the way in which the rules operate and understand that the immigration needs of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow are very different from those of the highlands and islands, which again are different from those in other regions of England and Wales?
The point that the right hon. Gentleman makes is one that a number of hon. Members have made this morning, and I have already said that there is recognition of that within the immigration rules. Some have asked whether there should be separate salary thresholds for different parts of the United Kingdom. Again, I say that they should be careful what they wish for, because on the median-level salaries, that might lead to an increase in the salary thresholds for Scotland as contrasted with where the national salary limits actually sit at present. I have been very clear on the fact that we have listened carefully on this specific case, and I will continue to do so.
The Home Affairs Committee, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and other Members of this House have warned the Government that the post-study work rules just do not work, and that they result in the kind of mess that we have this morning. The Minister talks about abuse, but the only evidence that has been given by a previous immigration Minister is of one person who was found at a checkout at Tesco who was working instead of being a student. I say to him that if there is abuse, deal with it, and do not let it affect genuine people who want to come to this country. The Minister says that he has exercised his discretion twice. I am glad that he has discovered discretion, because he has not used it in the past on a large number of cases—especially mine. He should exercise it once more and allow this family to stay.
The right hon. Gentleman highlights the abuse that we saw under the previous student arrangements. I point to the fact that 920 sponsors under the previous student arrangements have had their sponsorship withdrawn as part of the reforms, which have ensured that we have the quality that we want. We want to attract skilled and talented people to come and study at our universities. The Russell Group universities have seen a 7% increase in the number of international students coming to study at their institutions. I think I have underlined to the House this morning that I have considered this case carefully and that I have exercised discretion. I will certainly continue to listen to the representations made by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, and I will always consider representations made by all hon. Members across this House, but it is important that discretion is exercised exceptionally; otherwise we start to undermine the rules themselves.
I have recently had a substantial increase in the number of people telling me that immigration lawyers will not take their case. That appears to be a result of changes in procedure, meaning that there is little chance of success even when right is on the side of the appellant. Why will not the Government take the opportunity afforded by the Brain family case to re-assess their immigration rules and procedures and introduce that note of compassion, as well as helping those who benefit our economy to stay in the UK?
We always keep our immigration rules under review and, as I have indicated again this morning, we are always prepared to look at cases that may be brought to us and examine them to make sure that they are assessed properly, but it is important that we have clarity within those rules. If we seek to exercise discretion all the time, obviously that starts to undermine the very rules that we are seeking to uphold.
A week before the Scottish referendum the Prime Minister said that if Scotland wants to stay in the UK, all forms of devolution are there and all are possible, yet when at least 95% of Scotland’s MPs, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament want to keep just one family in the highlands of Scotland, it seems that nothing at all is possible. Young Lachlan Brain is in a Gaelic school in Dingwall—one can hardly get a more Scottish name than Lachlan—yet the Westminster Government want to throw him out. May I ask the Minister one question: has he identified a school in Australia where Lachlan can continue his Gaelic education?
We continue to discuss with the Scottish Government the possibility of examining reform in relation to international higher education students. We welcome the continuation of those discussions. The UK has an excellent record in relation to the post-study offer available to graduates of Scottish universities. As I have indicated again this morning to other right hon. and hon. Members, I will continue to listen to the representations that are made in respect of this case and consider them carefully.
Instead of spending time and resources on the deportation of this family, is it not time that the Home Office got its actions right and ensured that dangerous criminals such as Noureden Mallaky-Soodmand, who attacked people in Stockton, are deported after their first offence, rather than waiting for them to offend again?
This Government take very seriously the removal of foreign national offenders and those who pose a threat to this country. The hon. Gentleman will see from figures released today that the numbers of foreign national offenders who have been removed are at a five-year high. We continue to work across Government to achieve more, and I will reflect on the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has referred to me.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on his urgent question and commend the work of my right hon. Friends the Members for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and for Moray (Angus Robertson), and our colleagues in the Scottish Parliament and the First Minister for the attention that they are giving to this case. By his very admission at the Dispatch Box today, the Minister has made it clear that the family find themselves in their present position as a direct result of changes in the rules. It is another example of this Government’s continuing lack of attention to and understanding of the positive effect that immigration has on this country. They are allowing rhetoric on immigration to fuel the EU referendum debate. It is time for this Minister to stand up, do the right thing and prove that “Project Fear” in relation to immigration will not be allowed to win the day in the EU referendum.
The Government certainly do recognise the contribution that skilled and talented people from outside this country can make to our economy, and I have been very explicit about the way in which our immigration rules are designed to facilitate that. We announced the closure of the post-study work route in March 2011, which was before the family arrived. However, I will certainly continue to reflect on further representations and to consider those—and, indeed, any further application that the family may wish to make—very carefully.
Does this case not confirm that UK immigration policy simply does not work for Scotland? Scotland needs families like the Brains—we need dynamic young families such as them to come to live and work in Scotland. We have different demographic challenges, and we simply do not share this Conservative Government’s obsession with immigration figures. Will the Minister at least start a conversation with us about a sub-national immigration policy throughout the United Kingdom so that we can fashion an immigration system fit for Scotland?
We have an immigration policy that we continue to reform to ensure that it acts in the best interests of this country. I do not accept the characterisation that the hon. Gentleman gives. We will remain open to discussions with the Scottish Government about a range of issues. We are very clear about attracting skilled and talented people. There are ways in which people can move from education into work, but it is important to have that separation to avoid the abuse that we saw in the past.
Should the Minister not bear in mind two things? First, since he has come to the Dispatch Box no Conservative supporters of his have supported in any way the decision the Home Office has made. Secondly, would it not be appropriate to understand the strength of feeling that Opposition Members have expressed throughout these exchanges? It is always important to recognise when the House of Commons feels very angry and upset over a decision, and I hope the Minister will bear that in mind.
The only decision that is outstanding from the Home Office at this stage is the extension of time that we have given the family on two occasions to make a further application on the basis of employment in Scotland or the rest of the United Kingdom. Of course I will continue to reflect on representations, and that is precisely what I will be doing in the meeting I will hold later today with the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
The Government have gone back on their word—that is what has caused this problem. We hear a lot from the Government about their thoughts on one nation. Which nation does the Minister think is benefiting from this obtuse and retrospective immigration arrangement?
Again, I remind the hon. Lady of when the decision was announced to close the post-study work route—in March 2011—and of when the family arrived. They obviously have had many years to know what the situation is. I obviously wish them success, and I will continue to reflect on representations.
Is it not the case that the head-shaking from those on the Government Front Bench and the fact that two of the people who were sitting there have not been able to stay for a full half-hour demonstrate the Government’s attitude? On immigration policy for the UK as a whole, is it not time to revise the £35,000 threshold? Clearly, there are wage differences regionally, so that threshold needs to be reviewed.
No. Again, that rule has been clearly set to show progression and, therefore, benefit to the UK economy, whether in Scotland or elsewhere. Obviously, we have provided certain exemptions in relation to certain sectors. However, I think that that rule benefits the UK.
Meal do naidheachd—I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on the passionate way in which he has represented his entire constituency. This family are desperate to contribute to the highlands, and the highlands are desperate to keep them. What gives anyone the moral right to impose a decision on the highlands that nobody in the highlands wants?
Ultimately, the family need to find employment at the appropriate level. That is why I have made the points that I have about the Scottish Government and the work they do to see that there is a strong economy that is creating the jobs that actually create the environment people need to stay and work in Scotland. That is the important part of this.
As an MP for a rural constituency—one that is experiencing depopulation—I am dismayed that the Government are preparing to throw out of Scotland a family who have moved into the highlands and who are contributing positively to their community. Why are the Government determined to make our depopulation problem worse by sticking to this unfair and unjust action? The rules are clearly out of date and outmoded.
As I have indicated, there is no immediate prospect of the family being removed from the UK, and obviously we remain open to any further application that they may wish to make. I stress the point about the ability of the Scottish Government to create the jobs and the environment needed for people to stay.