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Immigration White Paper

Volume 635: debated on Monday 5 February 2018

Order. That is very cheeky of the right hon. Lady, who is a very senior denizen of the House. I must ask her to read out the urgent question that was granted. I did not grant an urgent question on what is going on with the immigration White Paper; I believe I am right in saying that her urgent question is, “To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the publication of the proposed immigration White Paper.”

I would like to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is happening with the immigration White Paper.

Well, all right. If the right hon. Lady were sitting a written exam today, she would probably have to do a little more revision. I think she has not quite remembered the precise wording. Nevertheless, as Jack Straw would have said, I think we have got the gravamen of the matter.

I will endeavour to answer the question that was set.

It is of course a great pleasure to come to the House today to answer the question from the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and I commend her for her brevity. In doing so, I point out that Ministers have made great efforts to keep the House informed of the state of play on the UK’s exit from the European Union, bearing in mind that we are in an ongoing negotiation and cannot give a running commentary.

Since June 2016, there have been numerous ministerial statements. This question, however, relates specifically to immigration, so I remind the House of where we have got to. Our first priority in the negotiation is to reach a deal on citizens’ rights, on the position of the 3 million EU citizens currently in the UK and, just as importantly, on the position of the 1 million UK citizens who reside in other EU member states. An agreement was successfully concluded on that last December, meaning that all those people were guaranteed continuing rights to live and work as they do now. Of course, we updated Parliament fully at the time. Our next priority is to agree the arrangements during the implementation period—the period immediately following the UK’s exit next March. Negotiations are shortly to begin with the EU. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out the UK’s broad objectives in the speech she gave in Florence last year. We will publish a White Paper in the coming months, when the time is right, and of course we will consider how we can update the House as negotiations progress.

As to the longer term, as the House will know, the Government have commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to advise on the economic aspects of the UK’s exit. The MAC has been asked to report by September 2018, although it has been invited to consider whether it could also produce interim reports. Let me be clear: given that we expect to have an implementation period of about two years after we leave, there will be plenty of time to take account of the MAC’s recommendations in designing the longer-term immigration system for the UK.

We are clear that the Government will make a success of Brexit. We will end free movement and build an immigration system that works in the national interest. We will, as we have done thus far, ensure that Parliament is kept informed and up to date.

I welcome the Immigration Minister to her new post, but she did not give us any information about immigration or the immigration White Paper. The Home Secretary told the House and the Select Committee in October that there would be an immigration White Paper by the end of last year and a Bill early this year. The then Immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), told the Committee in November that the White Paper would be produced “soon”, but now we have this. What on earth is going on? I have to say to the new Minister that this is a shambles. I understand that the MAC is not reporting until the autumn and that it will want to take advice on the labour market, but Ministers knew that timetable before Christmas, when they answered those questions. They knew that timetable because they set it when they asked for advice from the MAC. I also understand that negotiations are continuing, but, again, Ministers knew that before Christmas. In addition, this does not get around the obligation on the Home Office to tell the House, the public, EU citizens and employers what its negotiating objectives actually are.

These practical questions need answering very soon, not “in good time” or “when the time is right”. For example, what will the legal status be of the EU nationals who have not registered by the end of the grace period? The Home Secretary told the Committee that that would be in the White Paper. What will the arrangements be for European economic area citizens from Norway or Switzerland? If EU citizens arriving after March next year do not register, will they be able to work? Will employers have to check their registration documents? Will landlords have to make checks before they rent these people a property? What is the position for EU students coming this autumn? What will the arrangements for them be?

We know that the Prime Minister wants people arriving after March 2019 to be treated differently, but we have no idea how. It is just not good enough keeping Parliament in the dark in this way. The Government have said they do not want to be in the single market, but they have not told us what they want instead. They have said that they do not want to be in the customs union, but they have not told us what they want instead. Now they have said that they do not want to have free movement, but, again, they have not told us what they want instead or even what their negotiation objectives are. At best, Ministers are cutting Parliament and the public out of the crucial debate about the future of our country. At worst, they seem to be stuck in negotiations without having agreed, even among themselves, what they want to achieve out of them. May I suggest to the Immigration Minister that she asks the Home Secretary to come to this House to make a full statement, at least on the transition arrangements? The clock is ticking and when you are running out of time, you cannot keep kicking the can down the road.

First, I reassure the right hon. Lady that we are not kicking the can down the road. We are making sure we get a system that is right for people. That is why I make no apology for making our priority the 3 million EU citizens living here and the 1 million UK citizens living in EU states. We want to have a system in place for them during the implementation period so that we can register those 3 million people as smoothly and seamlessly as possible. It is imperative that, when we come to the House with a White Paper and an immigration Bill, they are the right pieces of legislation.

My right hon. Friend will know as well as I do that in successive Conservative party manifestos we have made a commitment to making sure that we bring immigration down to sustainable levels.

The immigration White Paper was originally scheduled to be published last summer. Then, Ministers told the Home Affairs Committee that it would be published before Christmas. Does not this constant postponement speak to the chaos and confusion on immigration in the Department as a whole? Does the Minister accept that, as the director general of the Confederation of British Industry said, business will be “hugely frustrated” by yet another postponement? Does she appreciate that firms need time to plan for change?

Does the Minister accept that this uncertainty is particularly upsetting for the 3 million EU citizens who live here? These people are contributing to the health service, social care, universities, financial services and the hospitality industry, among many other sectors. They are many of our constituents, neighbours and work colleagues. It is wrong that they should be treated like this. Furthermore, the longer the uncertainty goes on, the less willing EU citizens will be to come here to take up employment. Does the Minister accept that the consequences for recruitment in the health service in particular are potentially very serious? Does she also accept that European students who come to study in Britain after March 2019 will want reassurance that, if they are doing a three or four-year course, they will be able to stay for more than two years without having to apply again for a residence permit?

It is all very well for the Minister to say that the White Paper will be published when the time is right. The Opposition argue that the time has been right for some time and that the Government’s postponement and delay are inexcusable.

What is crucial is that, as my predecessor as Immigration Minister did, I continue to consult businesses and universities to make sure that their views are fed into the process. Likewise, the Migration Advisory Committee is consulting businesses because it is so important that their views are fed into the process and that the Government can use the response of economic experts to enable us to determine the best policy going forward.

I commend the Home Office for the careful and considered way it is dealing with this important Bill. It is listening to business and the experts and waiting for some further negotiation, before introducing a Bill that will be fit for purpose for this country for the next 10 or 20 years.

This unnecessary and unwelcome delay in the publication of a White Paper that was originally promised last summer should perhaps not surprise us, given the Government’s chaotic and aimless approach to Brexit. Even the transition arrangements are in chaos, with the Prime Minister saying that she will push back on residency rights for EU nationals during the transition, thereby making it harder to attract key EU nationals. All that while we are already rejecting doctors and crucial staff from outside the EU because the ridiculous tier 2 cap has been breached for two months in a row.

Scottish Government economic modelling shows that, on average, every EU citizen working in Scotland contributes £34,000 in GDP. The leak of the Whitehall EU exit analysis means we now know that the UK Government are sitting on analysis that comes to precisely the same conclusions as the Scottish Government’s. That highlights yet again the positive contribution that EU citizens make to Scotland’s economy and communities. Free movement has been vital to support healthy population growth in Scotland. I urge the Minister to continue dialogue with the Scottish Government to ensure that immigration rules after exit do not undo that welcome progress.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is of course right to point out that EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK have made a huge contribution to our country. That is precisely why we want to see their rights preserved and, indeed, why the Government are legislating that they should be through the withdrawal agreement. I absolutely take on board his comment about the Scottish Government. I reassure him that we will of course continue to work with our colleagues in the Scottish Government to make sure that we get the best results for the whole United Kingdom.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committed to leaving the single market and that that will allow the United Kingdom to have more control over EU immigration in future?

My hon. Friend will know as well as I do that, when people voted in June 2016 to leave the EU, part of that decision for some people was based on immigration. That is why we are taking back control of our borders and will do so through the immigration Bill when it is introduced.

The Minister seemed to suggest that there is no need to deal with this matter before the transition period because we will have the whole transition period—some two years—in which to sort out new arrangements. Does that mean that we will be retaining freedom of movement during the transition period, in which case why do we not stay in the single market?

We have been very clear that, after our exit, we want a deep and special relationship with our neighbours going forward, but we also want a smooth transition. It is really important that we have an implementation period that enables us to make sure that the 3 million EU citizens who are here are allowed to register smoothly and seamlessly. The hon. Gentleman will be as aware as I am that the Prime Minister has been very clear that we are leaving the single market and we are leaving the customs union.

Does the Minister agree that the referendum sent out a clear message that people want to take back more control over EU immigration, and that it is therefore crucial that we get this right and publish the report when it is fully ready?

My hon. Friend is, of course, right that, back in 2016, people sent us a very clear message. It is absolutely imperative that we have a smooth transition and that we publish the White Paper and the immigration Bill when the time is right, not before we are ready to do so.

With the Government’s position on this topic totally unclear even to Parliament, how on earth can Ministers expect to be taken seriously in the ongoing negotiations with our EU counterparts?

I am not quite sure how I can be clearer: we are leaving the single market, we are leaving the customs union, and we are seeking to implement a process that will last throughout the implementation period that allows those 3 million EU individuals living here, whose contribution we value, to register for their settled status as smoothly and as seamlessly as possible.

My right hon. Friend says that she will continue the dialogue about immigration with the Scottish Government. When she is doing that, will she remember that a recent opinion poll said that almost 70% of Scots rejected the Scottish National party’s plans to devolve immigration powers from this place to Holyrood?

I thank my hon. Friend for taking the trouble to point that out. Of course I will listen to voices from across Scotland.

With this chaos and delay, is not one thing increasingly clear: the Government’s promise to give EU citizens, and their families and employers, the legal certainty that they deserve is now totally broken? When will 3 million EU citizens get more than warm words and unfinished negotiations from this Brexit Conservative Government?

The right hon. Gentleman makes his point forcefully. However, I can only repeat this: we will bring forward the settled status scheme, which will be a digital scheme, that will enable our EU citizens living here, whom we value and whom we want to stay, to have a smooth and seamless transition as soon as we possibly can. We have allowed a two-year implementation period, because I am very conscious that 3 million people cannot register instantly. If they do so on a smooth basis, that will still represent 5,000 people a day. That will be a challenge, but it is one that we are determined to get right.

What my constituents in Corby and east Northamptonshire want is an immigration system that provides control, but one that is also fair and that treats people equally, regardless of where they come from in the world. Will my right hon. Friend confirm to the House that those two principles will underpin the White Paper in due course?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comment; I am always pleased to hear views from Corby and east Northamptonshire. What matters is that we have an immigration system that is fair, and that we work to ensure that any proposals that come forward during the implementation period are the ones that will give the best deal for the UK and ensure that our immigration system is sustainable.

This is a two-year Session of Parliament. Does the right hon. Lady expect the immigration Bill to complete its passage through the Houses of Parliament in that two-year period?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her new position as Immigration Minister and on her response to the urgent question. Will she confirm that it was the previous Labour Government who let immigration spiral out of control from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands a year, that immigration levels are still far too high, and that once we leave the European Union those numbers will start to fall?

With respect, I point out to my hon. Friend that the numbers are already beginning to fall. It is important that we note that the direction of travel is the right one. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have been very clear that we want a sustainable immigration system that sees those numbers coming down, and it is important that we deliver on that.

Post March 2019, from a practical point of view, the one in five of my constituents who are EU nationals could: have permanent residency or settled status; be eligible for settled status; have future eligibility for settled status; or not be eligible at all. When they are talking to landlords, employers and the health service, how are they going differentiate which category they fall into?

It is important to note that we will want to register those who are eligible for settled status as soon as possible so that their status can be confirmed. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there will be a period during which it will be difficult to differentiate, which is why we are going to use the two-year period to make sure we can do that as seamlessly as we possibly can.

Just in case anyone—either inside the Chamber or beyond—has inexplicably missed what my right hon. Friend has said, will she reaffirm the Government’s commitment to leaving the single market and leaving the customs union, and that this will ensure that we have control over EU immigration in the future?

My hon. Friend is, of course, right. We intend to leave the single market and the customs union, and to retain the control over our immigration system that our citizens told us that they wanted back in 2016.

The Minister will be aware that roughly half the immigrants who come to this country are from outside the EU and the European economic area. She talks about control, so will she tell me how many non-EEA citizens there are in the UK who have had an immigration application refused, but have not had removal or deportation proceedings initiated against them?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we work very hard to make sure that people who are in this country without permission find it a very difficult environment in which to live. The previous and current Home Secretary’s compliant environment policies have made sure that it is harder to have a bank account, harder to have a driving licence and harder to rent property. The important thing is we know that people come into this country without permission, and we should therefore be seeking to remove them.

A White Paper is a consultation document, but it seems to me that the Government are delaying consulting on what should go into a consultation document. Are we not in this situation because the extreme right wing of the Tory party, who are extreme Brexiters, have formed a tail that is wagging the Tory dog?

I am not quite sure how I should respond to being called a dog. However, it is really important to note that we are working incredibly hard to make sure we have an immigration system after Brexit that works in the interests of UK citizens. There is no extreme right-wing cabal controlling the Tory party. This is actually about making sure we deliver on what the British people voted for in 2016.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm two things? First, is it not really important, when we discuss immigration, to recognise that the overwhelming majority of people who come to our country do so to work? We are grateful for the work they do and we should always welcome the contribution they make to our country. Will she also confirm that the customs union has got diddly squat to do with immigration?

My right hon. Friend is right to point out that people who come to this country to work—whether they are from the EU or outside the EU—make a valuable contribution. That is part of the reason why, through the settled status scheme, we seek to recognise that and to make sure that these 3.5 million people can register as seamlessly as possible.

The Minister said that the issues around EU nationals in this country have been resolved. Is it not a fact that the European Commission made it clear that the circumstances of EU nationals married to British citizens who have chosen to come into this country using treaty rights under article 21 of the treaty of the European Union and the Surinder Singh judgment have not been resolved? Is there not a large group of people in this country married to people from other EU countries who have a level of uncertainty about their future?

The agreement that the Prime Minister came to with other EU leaders on 8 December was really important, because we are seeking to make the rights of EU citizens and their dependants as clear as possible, and to make it as easy as possible for them to register so that they can have the certainty to which they are entitled.

The Minister keeps talking about achieving sustainable levels of immigration, which suggests that current levels are unsustainable. The reality is that another Scottish farmer reported at the weekend that food was left to rot in his fields because he did not have enough workers. The fish processing industry is struggling, the medical profession is struggling to attract EU immigrants and academics are worried about their future, so the current level of immigration is currently unsustainable for exactly the opposite reasons that the Conservative Government think it is unsustainable. Is this another part of the no-deal preparations that the Government seem to be embarking on? What will happen to immigration policy if there is no deal and no transition period?

Whether deal or no deal—we are confident that there will be a deal—we will need a new immigration system that takes account of the fact that we will have left the European Union. The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about different sectors of the economy. That is one of the many reasons why we have asked the Migration Advisory Committee to consider what our policy should be, and that will give businesses a chance to feed in their views.

The Recruitment & Employment Confederation reports that in many sectors there are already insufficient UK applicants to fill the vacancies that exist today. Business cannot carry on with this uncertainty for much longer, so may I urge the Minister to bring forward the White Paper and the immigration Bill at the very earliest opportunity for the sake of our businesses?

I reassure the hon. Lady that we continue to consult businesses and the universities sector, and that is part of the reason why we have asked the MAC to bring forward a report for us by the autumn. It is really important to us that we get our immigration policy right, which is why we have not yet brought forward the White Paper and the Bill, but we intend to.

Last week, two consultants in intensive care at Addenbrooke’s Hospital wrote to me. They had been trying to recruit urgently needed staff. They found three people, but those people were turned down by the Home Office because the tier 2 visa cap had been reached for that month. How can that possibly be helpful to our country? Does the Minister agree that the system is basically broken?

Of course we need to ensure that we have a sustainable system, which is why it is important that the Bill and the White Paper take account of all views expressed to us by all sectors. That is what we are determined to do to get this right.

Even if the Minister cannot confirm any other great details, will she re-emphasise the point that there will be no change to the historical rights of citizens of the Irish Republic to travel to and work in Britain?

I think that we have been quite clear that those from the common travel area will be able to continue to travel, as indeed they could from 1920 onwards—long before we became members of the European Union.

In Yarl’s Wood and other such institutions, vulnerable people have been held, effectively indefinitely, when most of them have not actually committed any crime. Does the Minister agree that the Bill, when it finally comes, will provide an opportunity to review this obvious injustice?

Detention will continue to form part of our immigration policy, but I thank the hon. Lady for mentioning the case of Yarl’s Wood. I am going there to visit the immigration removal centre this week, and I have already been to two other removal centres. As the new Immigration Minister, it is imperative that I go and see how our policies are operating, and to seek reassurances where they are required.

Every Friday at my surgeries, I have a queue of constituents who have issues with the Home Office—everything from entrepreneur visas that have been delayed and refused, to people who cannot get their granny over for a visit. Is it not the case that the Home Office is a Department in so much chaos that there is no way whatever that it will be able to cope with an additional 3 million EU nationals?

I absolutely refute the suggestion that we are a Department in chaos. I reassure the hon. Lady that we are determined to ensure that the registration of EU nationals is as simple and straightforward as possible.

Has the Minister had a chance to read the Health Committee’s report on nursing shortages? It clearly sets out how much the NHS relies on nurses from overseas, and how many EU nurses are really worried about their future. Will she tell us how this delay will help the overstretched NHS to plan for the future and ensure that this country has the nurses it needs?

The hon. Lady will be aware that nurses remain on the shortage occupation list. Nurses from the EU who are currently living and working here will of course have the same right to settled status as those in other employments.

In reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), the Minister said that the immigration Bill would be passed in this two-year Parliament. If the consultation on the White Paper is coming in October, that will give her about four months to pass the Bill through both Houses. Will she confirm when the Bill is coming and whether she will get it through in the two-year Parliament? This is not something from “Yes, Minister”; it is about people’s lives. We need firm views from the Government on what is happening on immigration.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for comparing this to a “Yes, Minister” episode; I remember that there was a definite paucity of women in that programme. I assure him that we are absolutely clear that we will introduce the immigration Bill and the White Paper when the time is right. We appreciate that we have to get our immigration system sustainable and appropriate for a post-Brexit era, and it is really important to me that we do so.