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Immigration: Pausing the Hostile Environment

Volume 644: debated on Thursday 12 July 2018

(Urgent Question): May I ask the Minister of State if she will make a statement on the decision to pause the hostile environment and to slip that information out during the World cup last night?

One is supposed to read out the precise terms of the question, but the right hon. Gentleman indulged in a degree of poetic licence before I had the chance to stop him. Very good.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to this question, and I want to make our position very clear. We have put in place additional safeguards to ensure that legal migrants are not inadvertently caught up by measures designed to tackle illegal migration. It is right that we make a clear distinction between those who are here legally and those who are not. We have made it clear that it is not acceptable that those of the Windrush generation have been impacted negatively, and this Government have apologised.

We are keeping under constant review the safeguards that were immediately put in place. We have introduced a temporary pause in the proactive sharing of Home Office data with other organisations, including banks and building societies, for the purpose of controlling access to services. Data on persons over 30 has been excluded from sharing, to ensure that members of the Windrush generation are not inadvertently affected. This is a temporary measure. We are also providing additional support to landlords, employers and public service providers through the Home Office checking service to ensure that we are not impacting the Windrush generation. We have issued new guidance that encourages employers and landlords to get in touch with the Home Office checking service if a Commonwealth citizen does not have the documents they need to demonstrate their status. We have issued similar guidance to other Government Departments providing public services.

The Home Secretary has said that it is his top priority to right the wrongs that have occurred. A lessons learned review, which will have independent oversight, will help to ensure that we have a clear picture of what went wrong and of how we should take this forward. We are carrying out a historical review of removals and detentions. At the same time, our taskforce is helping to ensure that those who have struggled to demonstrate their right to be here are supported to do so, and we have committed to setting up a compensation scheme.

It is important to put on record the fact that immigration has brought considerable benefits to this country. We saw last night in England’s World Cup team 11 of the players from black or mixed-race heritage backgrounds. That is a tribute to the modern diversity of this country. When the Secretary of State took up his position a few weeks ago, he said that he wanted a decent system, a fair system and a system that treated people with respect. Is it respectful to slip out this information during yesterday’s World Cup spectacle? Is it respectful for the Minister’s Department still not to be able to tell us how many people have been detained? Is it respectful not to have any information about a transparent hardship scheme for those who are still in trouble? Is it respectful to have said nothing about whether the Minister is going to allow for a proper appeals system?

Will the Minister confirm that these changes are not just for the Windrush generation and that they are in fact for everyone who has been affected by the hostile environment? She talks about a “pause”, but why not scrap the hostile environment that is bringing this country into disrepute? Will she also confirm that we will no longer be asking teachers, nurses, doctors and landlords to act as the country’s border enforcement in the months and years ahead?

The right hon. Gentleman has raised a number of important points. First, I want to make it clear that it was the former Home Secretary who requested the pausing of proactive data sharing with other Government Departments, and that that started in April. That is a temporary measure. However, the data sharing cannot be recommenced without my ministerial consent, and it is certainly not something that we will begin again until we are confident that we will not be impacting members of the Windrush generation further.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned hardship, and of course our first priority has been to help people to secure their status through the taskforce. We have put in place a dedicated team for vulnerable people, whom we are linking up with other public sector bodies to ensure that they get the support they need. I chaired a cross-ministerial group early on in all this, and I was impressed by the steps that the Department for Work and Pensions in particular had taken to ensure that those affected would be able to have their benefits reinstated, indeed retrospectively, from the moment that they demonstrated that they had an appointment with the Windrush taskforce.

When conducting our review of those who may have been detained, it is important that we are meticulous. It would be wrong to come out with a number that we were not confident about and we will ensure that, as soon as we have figures that we are content are accurate, which will go through the same independent assurance process that we used for removals, they will be made available to the House.

The taskforce’s first priority is to ensure that those who are assisted achieve status, and that has happened in the vast majority of cases. Those over whom some question remains will have access to an administrative review and, in due course, could proceed to a judicial review if that were appropriate. Obviously, we do not want it to come to that.

As I have said previously and as the Home Secretary has made clear, we have sought to ensure that mitigations are in place for the measures that are within the compliant environment that have impacted the Windrush generation. As I said earlier, we have paused proactive data sharing for all nationalities for people over 30. However, it is important to reflect that compliant environment policies commenced a significant time ago under a previous Labour Administration, and it is also important that this Government have ways of identifying those who are actively accessing services in this country to which they are not entitled.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) deserves the praise and has the admiration of the whole House for how he has championed the Windrush generation, and he is of course right that this was an outrage. However, does the Minister appreciate that that generation, who came here believing this to be, in the words of the shadow Home Secretary, their “mother country” and who are proud patriots, take just as dim a view as any of the rest of us of those who behave illegally or improperly? The point is that the Windrush generation were not illegal or improper and that they do not condone illegality. In doing right by the Windrush generation and being unrelenting in their defence, will the Minister be equally unrelenting in dealing with people who abuse the system and try to cheat them and us?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He and the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) have been right to pay tribute to the immigrants who have come to this country and contributed so much to our society and way of life, giving us the multicultural Britain that we enjoy today. However, my right hon. Friend is right to point out that this Government continue to be determined to take action against people who are here illegally, and the suite of measures that enables us to do that remains in place.

The Opposition welcome the limited measures that have been announced, including the temporary end to data sharing and further advice for employers and landlords. However, I have met with a number of members of the Windrush generation who have been caught up in the Government’s net, both at meetings that I have organised and at meetings organised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), and Ministers do not understand that many of them have got into considerable debt because they did not get the benefits to which they are entitled and found themselves paying for medical treatment.

If the Government are serious about at least helping the Windrush generation, I urge them to look again at setting up a hardship fund. After all, we are talking about people in their 60s and over who have had to borrow or be lent money by relatives. If the Government want to be seen to be acting in good faith, they must review their decision not to have a proper hardship fund and set one up as a matter of urgency.

I welcome the limited measures announced, but the Opposition believe that there needs to be a total review of the hostile environment. I am not pretending that some elements of it—particularly in relation to the NHS—were not introduced by a Labour Government, but, unless we review it in total, the Windrush generation will not be the end of it in terms of unfairness and cruelty. We have to review it and see what is necessary to stop people abusing public services, but take out those elements that have caused so much misery to people who are actually British citizens. Ministers have to understand that this will not stop with the current cohort of largely West Indians. As time goes on, there will be cohorts from all over the Commonwealth, including south Asia and west Africa, caught up in the net of the hostile environment.

Finally, I repeat my request for more information: figures on deportations, on Windrush generation persons in immigration detention and on members of the Windrush generation who went back to the Caribbean—for a funeral or a holiday—and then were refused re-entry. Until we have the figures and the Minister sets up a proper hardship fund, members of the Windrush generation will be entitled to think that this is words, not action.

As the right hon. Lady will know, Martin Forde QC has been appointed as the independent adviser to the compensation scheme. His call for evidence has closed and has greatly informed the shape of the consultation, which will be forthcoming very soon. She raised the compliant environment controls, which have been introduced over many years: right to work checks in 1997; controls on benefits in 1999 and on social care in 2002; civil penalties for employers of illegal workers in 2008; and more recent measures, including on the private rented sector, bank accounts and driving licences in the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016.

The right hon. Lady raised the issue of people who have been in detention and those who may have been removed from the country. The Home Secretary provided information when he appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee and confirmed that current indications were that 63 people had been removed, but those figures are subject to the independent oversight that we will put in place in due course, and that will of course be properly independent. As I said in my answer to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), we will not come forward with the numbers of people detained until we are confident, through the manual review of all cases, that we have the right numbers.

It is with great sadness on both sides of the House that we reflect on how some people from the Windrush generation have been treated and seriously let down by our immigration system, whether it has been a Labour, a Conservative or a coalition Government in office. I am pleased that the Minister is now trying to bring transparency and compassion to this area, but will she confirm that people who made their lives here but have now retired back to their country of origin are free to return to this country at any time?

Absolutely yes. This is one of the areas we have considered, and we have made it clear that those who have retired overseas can return and that those who simply wish to come back and visit would have easy access to visitor visas. The most humbling meeting I have had in my role as Immigration Minister was in Southampton, where members of the Windrush generation set up a meeting that Home Office officials attended to talk to them about their experiences and to help those who needed to go through the taskforce. I know that many Members across the country have set up similar meetings, and I pay tribute to them all for the work they are doing to help to provide reassurance and to make sure that this wrong is righted.

This pause is a small, welcome step, but it is nothing more than that. Finally, it is an admission of the hostile environment that the Government have created, about which they were in denial.

What is the Minister actually doing to scrap the right to rent scheme? The scheme requires landlords to carry out immigration checks, and it has led to half of landlords being reluctant to rent to people without a UK passport. Will she confirm this insidious measure will not be rolled out in Scotland? Will she commit to a broader review of the hostile environment policies, as called for by the Home Affairs Committee? If not, tens of thousands of EU citizens who are not registered as having settled status in time will be among the next victims of this Government.

What is being done to prevent the next Windrush scandal, with thousands of children in the UK being priced out of access to citizenship documentation? Finally, when will the Government ditch their bogus immigration targets? Those false targets and false promises led to the hostile environment policies in the first place.

The compliant environment is part of the Government’s drive to address illegal migration, to tackle those who seek to profit from it and to encourage migrants to comply with the rules and laws of the United Kingdom. The public expect us to enforce immigration laws, which have been approved by Parliament, as a matter of fairness to those who abide by the rules.

Members of the Windrush generation are in their 70s and 80s, and many of them feel extremely vulnerable. One concern that has been expressed to me by my constituents is that they may suddenly face deportation. What words of reassurance can my right hon. Friend give them that they should report their position, make sure their position is regularised and fulfil their destiny as British citizens, as they chose way back in the 1950s?

It is an important point that we must provide reassurance and ensure that as many people as possible make contact with the taskforce. That is why we have been working closely with communities to make sure it is very clear that the taskforce has an attitude of helping individuals. I have been to the centre in Sheffield, and I heard people talking through individual phone calls. I listened both to the questions asked and to the very supportive responses given.

It is imperative that we focus on the numbers that have made contact. The taskforce has successfully responded to well over 8,000 calls, and more than 2,000 people have now secured their documentary status. In many cases, and we have seen some incredible stories on the news, those who have been through the process have found it helpful and have been able to provide reassurance to their family and friends. In many cases, those who have been through the process are the best advocates.

I welcome this urgent question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), and I agree with the shadow Home Secretary on the need for a hardship fund, which the Home Affairs Committee has twice recommended because we have seen cases of people with huge debts who have been wronged by the British state and who cannot wait for the compensation scheme.

The Minister has referred to data sharing, but she did not refer to the police. Will she look again at the obligation on the police to report victims of crime? The Committee has raised serious concern that this is deterring victims of domestic violence and slavery from coming forward to report to the police, and it is allowing dangerous criminals to get away with it.

The right hon. Lady is right to indicate that we do not want any dangerous criminals to get away with anything. Where there are safeguarding issues, it is important that data can be shared, but we should be careful to do so on a proportionate basis.

On the hardship fund, I was particularly struck when I chaired the cross-departmental meeting by how proactive the DWP was being. I am very conscious that some people may well have been deprived of their benefits, and the DWP was immediately reinstating the benefits of those who have confirmed status or who have confirmed an appointment with the Windrush taskforce, but of course the DWP also has a duty to make sure that any back payments that are owed are also reinstated.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on how she is getting on top of this very important issue. She said that 2,000 people who have contacted the Windrush taskforce have received documents confirming the legality of their immigration status, but how many people in total have contacted the taskforce? For what proportion have we now established the correct documentation?

So 2,125 individuals have had confirmation of status, which is done via a biometric residence permit. Many of them will then move on to apply for citizenship, and 584 individuals have been granted that to date. The taskforce has taken many thousands of telephone calls. Well over 8,000 call-backs have been made to people who have made contact in the first instance. I can confirm that more than 94% of people who have provided their information have had their status confirmed within the 14-day target, with many having this on the same day.

I, too, want to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for his question. We have all seen the disastrous impact that the Government’s hostile environment policies have had on British citizens, so why are the Government just pausing these policies? Why are they not abandoning them? I want to echo my hon. Friends in saying that these people need a hardship fund and the Government must act to introduce it.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. A lessons learned review, to be headed by Wendy Williams, has already been announced, and its terms of reference will be published. It will give independent oversight, which will help us to ensure that we have a clear picture of what went wrong and how we should take this forward. In the meantime, as Members have heard this morning, we are reviewing existing safeguards to make sure that those who are here lawfully are not inadvertently disadvantaged by measures put in place to tackle illegal migration. I have already made it clear that the Department for Work and Pensions is the lead Department in making sure that those who are in hardship have benefits both reinstated and backdated, but of course the compensation scheme will be the main mechanism via which individuals will be able to make sure that any compensation they are due is paid.

I welcome the statement from the Minister and the Home Office today. She will be aware that the Windrush scandal is exactly that—a scandal. Those of us on the Select Committee on Home Affairs have questioned several Ministers on why it was allowed to occur without it being highlighted by the Home Office’s internal systems. There was a trend happening that seemed to go unnoticed by the Home Office and officials within it. Will she update the House on what is being done to ensure that future trends are noted far earlier, rather than having to be established through media requests and so on, as in the Windrush case?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question. The lessons learned review is an important part of that, but my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been very clear that there is, and will be, a cultural change at the Home Office. We have to make sure that we are better at identifying such situations and responding with the appropriate speed. The lessons learned review will help us to understand what went wrong, and we most certainly are learning those lessons.

The hostile environment has particular consequences for refugees, especially as the Liberal Democrat and Tory coalition Government scrapped the national refugee integration service, which had been set up by the previous Labour Government. Refugees have fled conflicts and war, and they deserve help, not hostility. So will the Minister agree to restore a national refugee strategy and service, and allow applicants the right to work if the Home Office fails to meet its own six-month service standard?

The hon. Lady will, of course, be aware of the integration Green Paper, which is being led by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. In the past few weeks, I have had a number of meetings and conversations with leading charities working in the refugee sector. I am very conscious of the need for us to make sure that refugee communities are given the support—the English language teaching—that they need to be able to integrate. I have a particular focus on the measures we must take to help those with status into work.

Wendy Williams has been appointed to the lessons learned review, and I am optimistic that the terms of reference will be forthcoming very shortly indeed. It is an important review and its findings will be published. I am absolutely confident that Wendy Williams will bring integrity to the review and give it the external scrutiny that it requires.

The hostile environment is just one indication of the negative mindset that has shaped Home Office policy and thinking on immigration for years now. We have seen the cost of visa applications going through the roof, the very poor standard of first-instance decision making and the removal of rights of appeal. During this pause, will the Government look at immigration policies in the round and ensure that we have a more constructive and positive debate in future on the contribution that immigration can make to our economy?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. Too often, the discussions around immigration are steered by the tabloid press. In due course, both a White Paper and a Bill on immigration will come forward. I sincerely hope that we will be able to have reasoned and intelligent debates in this House, because it is important that we have an immigration system that works in the interests of not only our economy but our society and, most importantly, people.

Yesterday, I met representatives of Roma support groups who advised me of circumstances in which Roma are being encouraged—sometimes financially induced or pressured—to leave the country because they have no fixed abode or cannot produce a residence card. The Minister will know that they have every right to be here under EU freedom of movement rules. Will she take steps to ensure that this practice is ceased immediately?

The hon. Lady raises a really important point. She will be absolutely conscious, as I am, that EU citizens have every right to be here under free movement rules. I am conscious that we need to focus our efforts on those who do not have a legal right to be here and make sure that those who are inadvertently caught up in any policy are given absolutely the right assistance and information that they need. There are particular challenges regarding those who may be homeless. An excellent cross-departmental taskforce, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, is currently working on homelessness. It is important that we get our policies right in that respect.

The Government are setting up a compensation scheme and it is absolutely right that we consult on that before so doing. Martin Forde’s call for evidence received a great deal of information—in excess of 600 pieces of evidence. As I have already said, the DWP is the lead Department for making sure that those who were entitled to benefits and may have been denied them have them not only reinstated immediately but backdated.

The Minister might not know that we have a substantial Caribbean community in Huddersfield, mainly from Grenada and Jamaica—indeed, some of my Opposition colleagues have links to the community. Two people from that community came to see me in the House of Commons yesterday. They are very concerned, and not only about the insecurity that many of the older generation feel. A lot of fly-by-night lawyers and so-called experts are able to charge a lot of money to intercede, because many of these people are frightened of coming to their Member of Parliament in case information goes back and they are picked out and picked on. Will the Minister assure my constituents and the people up and down the country who are worried about this issue that the best place to go to sort it out is to their Member of Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman is always a forceful advocate for his own constituents. Throughout the Windrush crisis, I have seen Members of Parliament from all parties interceding and acting with great speed and compassion. It is essential that we convey a message of reassurance, which is what I sought to do when I attended a drop-in surgery with members of the Caribbean community in Southampton. Individual Members of Parliament are very well placed to do that, but it is absolutely the case that individuals can contact the taskforce without any need to approach immigration lawyers or advisers. I strongly recommend that they do that rather than approach a lawyer.

Do we not need to learn a much bigger lesson? Mr Speaker is descended from Romanian Jews. The former Foreign Secretary’s great grandfather was Turkish. The Agars, the Jardines, the Poulters and the Villiers all came over with the Normans. The de Bois and the Corbyns came over with the Huguenots. The Gillans, the Bryants, the Brennans, the Keegans, the Donelans and many others are, frankly, in the end Irish. Is not the truth of the matter that not a single Member of this House has pure, pure, pure British blood and that we should rejoice in the fact that we are all the children of immigrants?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I am sure that he was desperately trying to work out where Nokes came from. [Interruption.] I do not know. It is my ex-husband’s name. It is really important that we acknowledge, celebrate and recognise the contribution that immigrants have made to our country, to our community and to our society, and I do that. I hope that, over the coming months when we get to debate the immigration Bill, people will remember that.

Many of my constituents in Lewisham and Deptford have been victims of the hostile environment for far too long, waiting years for visas, not having service standards met and not being able to get any sort of update from the Home Office. Does the Minister accept that pausing the hostile environment is far too little and too late for many of my constituents, and should not the Government now be ending it for good?

The compliant environment provides some important policies that enable us to distinguish between those who are here legally and those who are not. As I said in response to an earlier question, this was something that commenced many years ago, under a different Government, and it is absolutely right that we should be able to check that those who are accessing benefits and services have the right to do so.

In 2014-15, more than 40,000 overseas students lost their leave to remain in the UK because an American testing firm alleged that they had cheated in their English language test. Many of them were plunged into great hardship. It is now becoming clear that a significant proportion of those allegations were without foundation. Will the Minister now offer those students who, remarkably, have managed to stay here, a large group of whom were in the House yesterday, a new secure English test to establish fairly whether they can now resume their studies?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. It is, of course, an issue that we are considering very carefully.

This is not the only pause that the Immigration Minister has tried to sneak out in the past month. She admitted to me in a written answer on 4 June that she had paused deportation flights to the Caribbean. She said in her answer that this was because of the need for “added levels of assurance”. Some 991 flights were booked in the past year to deport individuals to the Caribbean. Why did she pause the flights? Will they remain paused? And how many of those 991 individuals does she now believe were deported wrongly?

It is absolutely right that, at a time when we were looking very closely at whether anybody of the Windrush cohort had been negatively impacted, we paused flights to the Caribbean. It is important, going forward, that we look at those flights with utmost rigour, and we are determined to do so.

In a Westminster Hall debate on 13 June, the Minister said that no one had successfully judicially reviewed the Government under paragraph 3225 of the immigration rules. Was that accurate, and have any cases been settled out of court?

If the hon. Gentleman looks in the Library, he will find that I have provided clarification on that matter.

Can the Minister say whether she has issued any guidance to entry clearance officers about visitor visas? I have seen an upsurge in people who have been refused visitor visas. They have all the documentary evidence to fulfil the requirements of the immigration rules, but the disbelief of the entry clearance officer that they will not return to their home country seems to be the prevailing issue.

It is important that entry clearance officers consider applications for visitor visas with the utmost rigour. Every year, we issue in the region of 3 million visas—I think that the figure is 2.7 million visas. As I said in Westminster Hall quite recently, I do not believe that we get the answer right in every case, but in the vast majority we do.

One aspect of the hostile environment that sets the UK apart is the overdependence on the use of immigration detention—in particular, the lack of a time limit on detention. This House endorsed a recommendation from a cross-party inquiry seeking an end to indefinite detention and a greater use of community-based alternatives. What consideration is the Minister giving to that recommendation? Will she confirm that the much-delayed further review on detention conditions, being carried out by Stephen Shaw, will be published before the recess?

The use of immigration and removal centres was, in fact, down by 8% last year. The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the figures that have already been made public—that 63% of detainees are released within 28 days and that in the region of 92% or 93% of detainees are released within four months. Obviously, individuals have the right to apply for immigration bail at any time, and that happens automatically after four months. We expect to publish the response to the Stephen Shaw report in very short order indeed.

In my first year as a Member of Parliament, I have been shocked at the level of the hostile environment as it manifests itself in my constituency. Just two weeks ago, the Kamil family in my constituency went on hunger strike outside the Home Office in Glasgow, having been kept in limbo for 18 years, waiting for their asylum application to be assessed. They are Iraqi-Kurdish refugees. How on earth was this able to happen? Eighteen years is worse than a life sentence. Their children were forced into a situation where they were not able to leave the country. Will the Minister commit to investigating this case as part of a wider review?

I am happy to look at this individual case if the hon. Gentleman provides me with the details. I am conscious that we need to do better when it comes to the speed of assessing asylum cases and in ensuring that people receive their decisions in a timely manner.