[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
As this is only the third week since we have resumed our sittings in Westminster Hall, I remind hon. Members of the new procedures. We now have call lists, and we have just one withdrawal from that list, so there are nine people in total wishing to speak. We have been asked to tell colleagues to please sanitise the microphones before they leave, as it saves the staff getting involved with that. Only Members on the call list can speak, and Members are not expected to stay for winding-up speeches, but if they could stay for two speeches after they have spoken, that would be helpful.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 321862 relating to immigration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time today, Sir David. I want to start by paying tribute to the more than 125,000 people—including 202 from my constituency—who signed the petition to stop illegal immigration and secured this important debate in Parliament. I am glad to be able to introduce this petition to Parliament as a member of the Petitions Committee. Well over four years ago, more people voted to take back control of our money, our laws and, crucially, our borders than voted for anything in the history of this country. This petition is another powerful democratic reminder of our responsibility to deliver borders in which the people in this country can have confidence.
Before I get into the petition’s substance, I want to head off arguments often made on the left that seek to stifle meaningful debate such as this on illegal immigration. Contrary to what they may say, wanting to have a fair system of rules to govern who enters our country is not about being anti-immigrant or anti-refugee. The vast majority of my constituents who write to me about the issue are not anti-immigrant and they are not racist. Like me, they are immensely proud to be part of the diverse town of Ipswich, which has benefited enormously from immigration and shown its spirit of generosity to some of the most needy refugees coming directly from war-torn countries. Last month, I visited the Suffolk refugee centre in Ipswich to hear some of those people’s stories, including from people who have become successful entrepreneurs in our town.
Our asylum system should be based on compassion, but for that to work, it must also be based on rules that people can have trust in. That is the thrust of the petition, along with a poll by YouGov in August, which found that 73% consider illegal channel crossings to be a serious issue. I know from talking to people in my constituency and elsewhere that the overwhelming mood among the public is one of frustration at the lawlessness we so often see in our seas. Added to that is the vexation that a great country such as ours, which has voted to take back its sovereignty, seems to have its hands tied when it comes to controlling who comes into our island home and removing people who are here illegally. The vast majority of people in this country know that, without borders, we do not have a country and that while we should welcome the world’s best and brightest and those genuinely seeking refuge, who want to come here legally, our hospitality must not be taken for granted.
Perhaps the most important word in the petition, though, is the word “action”. The public’s patience is hanging by a thread, and we have reached the point where words will no longer suffice. Today, I want to underline how action is urgently needed in two key areas if we are to mend the public’s broken trust in the integrity of our borders. The first is stemming the flow of people entering this country illegally, and the second is ending the abuse of our broken asylum system.
I will start with the issue of illegal entry and the unprecedented number of illegal migrants we have seen crossing the channel this year. So far in 2020, more than 7,000 people have entered our country that way, which is more than five times the number who arrived via that route in 2019. It has been particularly difficult in recent months for the law-abiding majority in the UK to see these boats flouting our laws with near impunity on almost a daily basis when we are being asked to follow some of the greatest restrictions on our freedoms that this country has ever had to impose.
The images we have seen on our TV screens of these illegal boats arriving at our shores are a stark reminder that, more than four years on from the 2016 Brexit vote, we still have not taken back control of our borders in a meaningful sense. The only way to prevent these illegal crossings is by sending a clear message to everyone thinking of coming here illegally that all attempts will be futile. We must look at what the Australians did with Operation Sovereign Borders, where they blocked all boats from landing in Australia. After the policy was introduced, the number of people trying to enter Australia illegally by boat dropped from over 2,600 a month to just over 200.
We must be prepared to deploy similar safe-return tactics. I welcome the fact that the Government are looking at a range of options, including learning from the Australian approach. The shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), has said that that approach lacks compassion. I would like to hear today from the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) exactly how the status quo is compassionate when it fuels the evil trafficking of human beings and dangerous sea crossings that we currently see. What exactly is Labour’s position on this matter, and what would it do?
It is good that the Government are working with the French to prevent these crossings, but we must be clear that our ability to protect our borders should not be contingent on the French or any other third country being willing to play ball. We must have the capacity to act in our own national interest, and after the EU transition period has ended we must extricate ourselves from all EU and international rules that prevent us from towing these boats all the way back to France, if necessary.
Sending out the message that illegally crossing the channel just will not work is also a humanitarian necessity. When the leadership of the Labour party and others in the liberal left establishment are content to turn a blind eye to crossings, it plays into the hands of the ruthless people smugglers who exploit these vulnerable migrants, often taking their money only to push them out to sea in unseaworthy boats and without lifejackets but with instructions to threaten to throw themselves overboard to prevent them from being picked up by the French authorities.
The tragic case of a 16-year-old Sudanese boy who washed up on a French beach in August, having drowned while trying to reach the UK, should never have been allowed to happen. I understand that another death may have happened this weekend in the channel. Those who refuse to act to stop these crossings or who even encourage them out of an ideological attachment to open borders are putting the people they claim to want to help in immense danger. By way of contrast, in the five years before Australia implemented its zero-tolerance approach to illegal boats in 2013, 877 migrants drowned trying to make the journey. Since then, I understand that none has.
Let us move on to our asylum system. Coupled with stopping illegal entry, we must also diminish the pull factors that cause migrants to attempt these dangerous crossings in the first place. At the heart of that must be overhauling our broken asylum system, as these migrants know that, if they can reach our shores and claim asylum, the overwhelming chances are that they will be able to stay for good. Of about 9,000 people who have crossed the channel illegally since the start of 2019, less than 3% have been returned, despite about 80% of those this year being found to have no credible asylum claim here in the UK.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has rightly pointed out, the exploitation of our asylum system is abetted by certain liberal sections of our legal establishment who exploit our human rights law and submit multiple bogus claims on behalf of migrants who have already had their claims rejected to stop deportations. The spectacle we saw earlier this month when 29 out of 30 failed asylum seekers were taken off a deportation flight at the last moment following the intervention of human rights lawyers is a clear demonstration of how the law as it stands is not on the side of the people it is meant to serve.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has her finger on the pulse, especially compared to the Labour party, which last year voted at its party conference to make the problem much more difficult by closing all immigration detention centres. By contrast, the actions the Government have set out in their response to the petition, including withdrawing from the Dublin regulation and the EU’s common asylum system at the end of the transition period, will help us end the situation where the UK takes three times as many asylum seekers from the whole of the EU as we send back.
However, I urge the Minister to go further today than the Home Office’s written response to this petition, which says that
“if a migrant has chosen to evade immigration control or enter the UK illegally, then they can have no expectation of remaining in the absence of a genuine claim for UK protection”.
The expectation should be that anyone who has deliberately chosen to enter this country through an illegal route— those who do so have often travelled through many safe European countries to get here—should have no expectation that they will be able to stay.
To the public, it is unjustifiable that if they break the law, they will be punished, but if someone breaks our immigration rules, they stand a chance of being rewarded by getting to stay here. Tackling that is an essential part of building an ever more compassionate asylum system. Ideally, all asylum claims would be processed in centres that are outside the UK and close to the most needy. It is completely unfair to those who want to come here legally and directly from war-torn countries—it is also unfair to the taxpayers who fund our asylum system—if economic migrants from safe countries such as France can jump the queue ahead of them.
There is an important debate to be had about whether the country can accept more asylum seekers legally, but that is an entirely separate debate and one that will be difficult to have until members of the public have confidence that our laws are being followed consistently. What the public will not accept is the notion pushed by some on the left that because, in their eyes, we do not take enough refugees legally, we are somehow deserving of illegal attempts to breach our borders.
I know that the Home Secretary appreciates the urgency of this issue. I recognise the need for a robust dual approach to tackle illegal entry and our broken asylum system, if we are to get a grip on illegal immigration. That is the only approach that delivers for the millions of people who voted in the 2016 referendum, and that is both fair to the law-abiding people in this country and compassionate towards those who need our help the most.
However, I ask the Minister to be completely clear with the public that we will not leave the job almost done. Everyone who breaks our laws to come here must be removed, and we must take matters into our own hands when it comes to acting with autonomy in the English channel to protect our sovereignty. This is a test of the country’s political will, and I trust that the Minister will ensure that we seize all opportunities to take back control and ensure that our country is no longer a passive actor.
Over the past few months, I have received significant amounts of correspondence on this issue, and I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members are in the same position. There is a desire for us to be pro-immigration for people who want to contribute and integrate, and for us to have a rules-based process that is driven by compassion for those who are most needy and vulnerable. However, most of those who have written to me do not want a situation that looks like lawlessness, in which people can jump the queue. We need a rules-based system that has compassion at its heart, but we need to deal with illegal immigration as a matter of absolute priority.
It is a great pleasure, Sir David, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.
It is difficult to believe that almost a year ago, the Conservative party was elected by the British people with a mighty majority and a clear mandate to deliver on our promises: to get Brexit done; to provide world-class public services while exercising sound fiscal management; and, crucially, to reform our immigration policy to emulate the system that is successfully employed by Australia.
Sadly, over the summer months hundreds of illegal immigrants have crossed the English channel from France to our shores. This year, a record 7,200 migrants have reached UK shores in small boats, compared with around 1,850 last year. In September alone, 1,954 made it across the English channel. I read in the newspapers only two days ago that a French navy warship escorted a boat full of migrants across the channel.
Those who land on British soil, as well as those who labour in the grey economy, are sent to hotels and other accommodation across the country, such as the Cedar Court Hotel and the Hotel St Pierre in Wakefield. Such luxury establishments are being used, at great expense, to house those who are awaiting their asylum determination. However, I take heart from the fact that the Home Secretary has taken a strong line against illegal crossings to the UK. Firmer action in our territorial waters, through our work with the French border forces and through our legal system, will be critical to achieving that objective.
The Labour party chooses to attack the Home Secretary for her laudable decision to stand steadfast against illegal immigration. However, rewarding those who illegally cross with automatic residency is false compassion. It undermines our national security and not only encourages others to follow suit, but supports the beastly trade in humans, which is certainly something we should never encourage. I do not wish for the drawbridge to be raised and for the United Kingdom to be isolated from the rest of the world, but I feel it is nigh time for economic migration to be disaggregated from the claims of those who seek genuine asylum. The two have become dangerously conflated in the public consciousness.
Diversity and tolerance of one another, regardless of creed or colour, is one of our characteristic principles. My ancestors are testament to that principle. My late father, who was born in the North-West Frontier of British India, in what is now Pakistan, travelled to the United Kingdom to study at University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He served his entire life, until his dying day, as a consultant dermatologist, serving and tending to the people of Wakefield, who I am proud to represent. My family have suffered terrible persecution, with many being killed and tortured in Muslim-majority countries, because they are from a peace-loving community that is repugnant to the peddlers of hate and extremism—Ahmadis. Many of them have sought refuge and forged purposeful lives in our country. That is something we should be proud of.
The Conservatives want to ensure that our immigration system is remade to attract the brightest and best to enter the United Kingdom legally to live and work, regardless of their country of origin. It is our moral duty to ensure that the United Kingdom prevents people from illegally entering our country and taking advantage of us and our people. If we do not, the state of our community relations will only go one way—a deep and painful downward trajectory. For all these reasons, we must tackle the menace of illegal immigration with zero tolerance for illegal claims.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time this afternoon, Sir David, even if the first occasion was only for a short time. I am pleased to take part in the debate.
In common with you, I suspect, Sir David, and all or most of those who are in the Chamber, first and foremost in my thoughts is compassion for those who are in need; for those who have had to flee their homes because of persecution; and for those who, as a result of violence, have lost loved ones, homes or property and had their jobs and opportunities destroyed. I believe we have a moral obligation to help those who are in need and those who have had their lives torn apart by persecution, through no fault of their own.
I am chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, in which I have a deep interest, as do many others in the Chamber. When I came to the House in 2010, I had hoped that we could consider the subject regularly on the Floor of the House, and we have been successful in that endeavour. We have also been successful in getting the Government to respond, to understand the issues and to bring into play many things to help Christians and other persecuted groups across the world. As chair of the all-party group, I speak out for Christians and those of other religions. Indeed, I speak out for those with no religion. The Minister, who has been at the forefront in a previous job, has a deep interest in the matter as well.
I am the strongest advocate for the retention of international aid to help those who need our help, and I believe that that aid should be delivered through projects on the ground. The Government have never abdicated their responsibility for doing just that. Although we might have concerns over the amalgamation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, the Government have said that they will commit to spending 0.7% of GDP so that we can help people in other countries. I hope that future Government policy will reflect that; that is the person that I am, Sir David. This House has a massive role to play in supporting individuals affected by persecution, and in effecting change to prevent persecution.
I spoke to Naomi, who works on preparing my speeches. She is a very busy girl, and we try to keep her active. She and I are in the same boat on these things. I am reminded that, along with the Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and local community groups, we settled six Syrian families in Newtownards. It was a very humbling experience to meet people who have had to flee their homes and could not return, even though they wanted to, because their houses and property were no longer there, their families had been decimated and many of their loved ones had been killed.
Those six families came to live in Newtownards. Some had a rudimentary grasp of the English language and others did not, but the community came together. What a joy it was to have the Housing Executive working to get them a house, the Department for Work and Pensions working to see how we could help them with finance, and all the church and community groups coming together to provide them with furniture, food and so on. That strong relationship is still there, with the whole community—the Government centrally and locally, and those in the community—working together to help them. Those six families are starting to integrate in the town of Newtownards. It is a joy to be able to reach out and help, in a small way, those who have nobody else to help them.
I am a practical person who understands that we have a duty of care to our own citizens in this country, which precedes any other obligation. Although we must help those who need help, we need to do so in tandem with meeting the needs of our own communities. The resettlement of those families happened only because the communities wanted it to happen, and it was important that we all came together. It is a difficult balance, but I sincerely believe that we can find the balance and help individuals while effecting the global change that we all want to see. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who is my friend, speaks for the Scottish National party. We have spoken together in many debates, and we understand the need for the Government to work hard to make things happen.
I read the Government’s response to the petition and was pleased to see that the French have managed—I use these words very carefully—to stop 300 dangerous crossings taking place. Why is it dangerous? Because people die on those crossings. A man was recently found on a beach; I am not sure whether it was found out who he was, but the police were of the opinion that he had drowned on his way over here. I must highlight the fact that 300 is only half the total; the other 50% were not successfully stopped. I use words carefully, ever mindful of where I am coming from. As a father, my heart goes out to those who are so desperate for a different life that they feel they have no option other than to cross in such a dangerous way. When we see the rubber rafts and wee dinghies that are used to bring people over, we can understand the extent of the danger.
Having met some of the Syrian Christian refugees in Newtownards and heard their stories, I am pleased to be able to be involved in a small way, as everybody did their part. It is like being part of a big engine, with many cogs; I am just a small cog in the wheel, but all the other cogs come together to make it all happen. It is clear that we must do something to be compassionate, but we must also ensure that those who claim asylum do so in a safe and suitable way, and that we have somewhere for that family to go and a hope for their future.
In my 10 short years in this House—I am not like you, Sir David; I think you have been in this House forever—we have been able to help many people with their immigration issues. I want to put on record that I have always found Ministers immensely helpful. The Minister wants to help us find a solution to our problems.
It is important that we find a way to make that happen. I believe there are several ways to achieve that. I have contacted the Home Office a number of times, asking for us to show compassion to immigrants who have made it to our shore and to help them as much as we can. We must be aware that the dangerous crossing must be avoided at all costs, because it is just that dangerous.
As we move into winter, the press say—I do not know if they are right—that we will get 15 or 20 days of the worst weather that we have had at this time of year for a long time. We must have a system in place that allows for application from safety in France and other nations, and we must ensure that those who come here do so legally and with a plan in mind, so that we can help them to find a job, a house and a community that wants to welcome them in.
I agree with the Government statement:
“There are a number of legal routes for migration. Denying the use of dangerous routes from safe third countries does not deny people the right to seek asylum in those countries.”
I welcome that because I want to see the Government reaching out and trying to help. The Government have said:
“We are clear that if a migrant has chosen to evade immigration control or enter the UK illegally, then they can have no expectation of remaining in the absence of a genuine claim for UK protection”.
However, if it can be proven that an immigrant has experienced, as many of those I represent have, some of the worst violent, cruel and surgical persecution, mentally, physically and socially, in a way that makes my heart reach out to them—in many cases, such as the ones I have been involved with, it has been proven, and I welcome that—then the immigrant does deserve to have their genuine claim for UK protection.
However, the current operation of the Human Rights Act 1998, the EU’s common European asylum system and, in particular, the Dublin regulation make that a cumbersome and lengthy process. There are cases that I have been pursuing for people for over four or even five years. At the end of the transition period in January 2021, however, we will be free of the Dublin regulation and the common asylum system, and we will be able to negotiate new return agreements on our own terms. Again, we look forward to having some control over what we do and how we can help people in far-off countries.
The Government response continues:
“Asylum seekers entering from safe countries will remain a priority for removal, along with foreign national prisoners and those whose removal is justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health.”
I am not one to report on everything I read in the papers, but some of us in this room can remember the person who was guilty of a criminal offence and put on a plane to be deported, but the passengers on the plane spoke up and the person had to be removed. I think it may have been in the press again last week. Two years later, it is time for that person, who did not do the right thing by committing a criminal offence and taking advantage of this country’s good policies, to leave.
I look forward to understanding how we can be compassionate and caring within a legal system that enables people who have no place to go due to persecution—those for whom I speak and whose letters I read every week—to come here and be a living, working part of our wonderful, diverse community in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As I often say: better together.
I look to the Minister to get the answer that we need. I have every confidence that we will be working in a way that allows us to look after those people who come to us with their asylum needs and that we can reach out and make this a country that invites people here, but we need regulation to ensure that those who come are deserving of that right.
I am pleased that this debate is taking place, especially as illegal immigration is an issue of particular concern to my constituents. The petition was signed by more than 270 individuals in Don Valley. Equally, dozens of constituents emailed me about the illegal channel crossings over the summer months. They were angry about what they saw, especially as many had believed that our departure from the European Union would lead us to have more, not less, control of our borders.
I know that some individuals, and even some right hon. and hon. Members, will claim that the petition has anti-immigration undertones and is even racist, yet I could not disagree more. I believe that immigrants have played a crucial role in our nation’s history and continue to contribute massively to our economy and innovation. Moreover, I am sure that the vast majority of people in Don Valley, and those who have signed the petition, would share a similar view. However, it is also my view that the majority of people would agree that it is essential that people come to our country in a manner that is legal and fair. For that reason, the Government should do whatever is necessary to deter illegal immigration humanely. After all, we should remember that one of the main reasons that people from around the world have come to our shores is that this country has a long-held sense of fairness, which is undoubtedly a British value. Yet what is not fair is for individuals to jump the queue, bypass those who are legitimately seeking asylum and land on our shores uninvited.
Although I cannot stress how much I sympathise with individuals who are fleeing terrible circumstances, those crossing the channel in small boats were doing so from a safe country: France. There is no reason why they could not have sought asylum there, unless of course their primary concern was not to flee war, but to come here for economic reasons. That is unfair not only to legitimate refugees, but to the British people, who for too long have felt that we have no control over who we are letting into the country. The figures speak for themselves and they do not reflect well on us as politicians. Polling from September last year revealed that a mere 13% of the public trust MPs to tell the truth on immigration. It is therefore important that we listen properly to the concerns of the people we represent, rather than write off such concerns.
I welcome the Government’s work with their French counterparts to deter the crossings. The individuals who traffic people across the channel are vicious criminals who do not care about the lives of those they are transporting. We should all welcome the Government’s commitment to work with the European authorities and to pursue those who are engaged in this practice.
Another pressing challenge for the Government is to return individuals to the safe countries in which they resided before coming illegally to the UK. Now that we have left the European Union, we should seize the opportunity to reaffirm a British sense of fairness to our immigration and asylum system. Article 3 of the European convention on human rights can be used by some lawyers to stop the British Government sending back foreign criminals and people who are not eligible for asylum. As right hon. and hon. Members know, the interpretation of whether an individual will be subject to inhuman or degrading treatment if they are removed from the UK is judged on a case-by-case basis. I am pleased to have read that the Government will therefore better define what is meant by inhuman or degrading treatment, so that the boundaries of what that means cannot be stretched to such an extent that the terms become meaningless.
That is extremely important, expressly because two months ago a Home Office charter flight with 23 illegal immigrants was grounded at the very last minute by human rights lawyers. This has nothing to do with fairness and is merely a form of left-wing activism. If we are to restore people’s trust in our immigration system, that must come to an end.
We therefore need to quicken the process of returning false asylum claimants while also ensuring that those with genuine claims are not trapped in an endless cycle of bureaucracy. That would better deter people from making illegal crossings, while genuinely helping those who need our protection. That is what the signatories to the petition want, and I support them. The Home Secretary has promised a complete overhaul in this area, which I know the people of Dom Valley will welcome enormously. I can only urge other Members to listen to the concerns of the British people and, as the Home Secretary said, make our asylum system “firm but fair”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for presenting the debate on what is a pressing issue, as underlined by the significant support for the petition.
Many from my own constituency of Redcar and Cleveland are concerned by the daily arrival of boats on our shores bringing more and more illegal immigrants to this country via an unsafe and unlawful route. When I raised the issue in my local newspapers and local media, I was lambasted by local Labour politicians for commenting on issues 300 miles from the sandy shores of Redcar and Marske. However, the fact that 311 of my constituents have signed this petition—more than anyone else speaking in this debate—shows the strength of feeling. It was the No. 1 issue in my inbox over the summer, so I will not take any lectures from the Labour party—particularly given that its Members have not even attended this debate—for speaking up for my constituents. Perhaps their silence on the issue is the reason why Redcar elected its first ever Tory MP in December.
The safest, most humane and most compassionate thing we can do for any person wanting to cross the channel illegally is to stop them getting in the boat. It cannot be right that vulnerable people are charged thousands of pounds to be loaded, without lifejackets and with 40 others, into a dinghy meant for 20 people, and then pushed into the open sea in the hope that they will reach Britain. Two people have died this year attempting these crossings, and it is thanks to our coastguard, lifeboats, the Royal Navy and UK Border Force that many more have not faced the same fate. Despite our best efforts to make the route unviable—I commend the actions of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Minister, who has graciously spoken with me about this issue a number of times—these arrivals have rapidly increased, with more than 7,000 this year. Urgent measures are needed to stop the flow. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Natalie Elphicke), who could not be here today, but who has worked incredibly hard alongside the Home Office. I commend her for that.
It is not acceptable for it to be so easy for criminal gangs to profit from other people’s desperation and prevent those genuinely fleeing persecution from finding safe refuge. Our asylum system is clogged and overwhelmed with requests. While applicants wait for an outcome, we should bear in mind that, regardless of the legitimacy of their claim, they are, rightly, housed and fed—but at the expense of the taxpayer.
No one is arguing that legitimate and genuine asylum seekers should not be able to find safe refuge in the UK. We are a country with a proud record of providing asylum to those seeking safety from war zones and persecution. But right now we are simply failing to do so. Our asylum system has been hijacked by individuals who deliberately intend to abuse our generosity. This needs to end. It is unacceptable to genuine asylum seekers and to our constituents, including mine in Redcar and Cleveland, who are paying their taxes and seeing that squandered on false asylum claims. People who are genuinely seeking a safe refuge could and should claim asylum in the first country they reach. Before crossing the channel, many will have already registered as an asylum seeker in another EU country and will travel through France and various other countries to get to our shores. I believe that the route will continually be abused until we make it unviable for those who seek to abuse it.
To that end, I believe that our approach should be twofold. First, we need properly to resource the National Crime Agency, UK Border Force and the police to root out the people smugglers and organised crime gangs that perpetuate this form of illegal immigration. Secondly, we should adopt an Australian-style approach to illegal immigration, whereby we intercept a vessel, ensure the safety of its passengers and then return it to the shores from which it left. Only by doing that will we prove to those seeking to cross to the UK that the route is unviable and, in turn, starve the people smugglers of their funds from that abusive practice.
I know that many organisations are already doing an incredible job in cracking down on the criminal gangs—those organisation are working alongside the French authorities—and I welcome the arrests that the Minister has previously announced from the Dispatch Box. But may I urge Ministers to go further and do everything they can to ensure that the French authorities are stopping people attempting to make the crossing in the first place? May I also urge them to push for joint operations to intercept boats at sea and ensure that they are returned safely?
We must take this problem seriously and ensure that anyone who breaks the law faces the full consequence, or we risk failing those who genuinely need our help. I want to finish as I started, by saying that the safest, most humane and most compassionate thing that we can do for any person wanting to cross the channel illegally is to stop them getting in the boat.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I very much enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and I agreed with most of it, apart from his final paragraph, but I have to say that that is where the consensus ends in this debate—and it is a debate. I certainly was struck by the fact that a number of contributions talked about illegal immigration, but not one Member actually articulated what that means and gave their definition of illegal immigration, so let us move on to the facts, rather than the rhetoric.
The facts are these. The number of people claiming asylum substantially reduced in 2020. This year, there has been a 40% drop, according to the Government’s own statistics. It is the route that has changed. It is because other routes are no longer available that there are the crossings that we are discussing.
It is not illegal to enter the UK for the purpose of making an asylum claim, and the most recent evidence set out by the Home Office’s clandestine channel threat commander suggests that 100% of the people crossing the English channel in small boats are doing so to claim asylum. That was clear evidence that was given by the commander to the Home Affairs Committee. They are doing so to seek international protection. None is trying to enter the country unobserved or for criminal reasons. That was the evidence that was presented. And as I said, there has been a 40% drop, according to the immigration statistics published in August of this year, and that is compared with the last quarter of 2019.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument that the route has changed—it has indeed—but does he not see that the route is now much more unsafe? Any other route by which an asylum claim can be made is intrinsically safer than going out to sea in a dinghy that is not meant for the number of people whom it is carrying.
The UK Government have a responsibility to provide safe legal routes for people claiming asylum. I will come to that later in my contribution.
What is the legal position for people seeking asylum in the UK after arriving from France? Those arriving in the UK and making a claim for asylum are subject to international refugee law, and their rights are not affected by the mode of arrival or means of entry. The UK is a signatory to the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and the 1967 protocol.
How does the legal system intervene to help people who are being removed? I was staggered to hear that the legal profession in the UK has been overrun by these Trotskyite and Marxist lawyers who are stopping people being deported. What absolute, utter nonsense. That is certainly not the case. I will explain, for those watching this debate, how the legal system actually stops people being removed, because the claim that the legal system sometimes unfairly prevents people from being removed is nonsense and misrepresents how our asylum and human rights law functions and its purpose
There are established processes for the removal of people in certain circumstances where their asylum claim has been fully heard by the UK or should be held elsewhere. I have no problem with that. I have seen individuals come to my office who have had to be deported because of the way in which they went through the system. Some of that included criminal activity. I have no problem with that at all. However, removals are stopped for a wide range of reasons, such as on health grounds, concerns about trafficking, or appeals relating to protecting the rights of individuals. Where those removals are halted, it is because the Home Office and the Home Secretary are not adhering to the law.
Removals cannot be prevented by lawyers themselves. We have heard in this debate that it is the lawyers who are stopping deportations. That is nonsense. The legal assistance is provided to ensure that the law is upheld and, if necessary, a court of law determines whether a removal is stopped. Such processes have to be undertaken quickly, as applicants will not usually be given much notice of removal proceedings. That is a fact, as my constituency casework shows, given that Glasgow is the only place in Scotland that takes on asylum seekers.
The hon. Gentleman says that Glasgow takes on asylum seekers. He will be fully aware that, a few years ago, one of my co-religionists was murdered in his shop by somebody of Pakistani origin simply for being an Ahmadi Muslim who wished his Christian neighbours a happy Easter. As somebody who is particularly familiar with the issue of asylum, I also know of abuses of the system and of people who genuinely do need safe avenues for asylum. I can tell the hon. Gentleman categorically that people can apply for asylum in this country through legal mechanisms. Since the 1980s, the Ahmadi community has banned and refused people the right of entering this or any other country through illegal means. That is why we have no—
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that evidence shows that people abuse the asylum system? Do we not want those who come here to live and work among us and to become part of the fabric—the silver and golden threads—of the national tapestry to obey the rules? That is one of the characteristics of our country, and if we allow those who are coming in to break the rules from the get-go, are they going to fit?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his second speech. I must say to him—I will be quick, for time purposes—that there is a great Ahmadi community in Glasgow, of which we are very proud. All I can say to him, based on my experience of dealing with asylum claims, is that asylum claim abuses are few and far between compared with those seeking genuine asylum.
Touching on the hon. Gentleman’s point, I would want asylum seekers to be given, after a certain point, the right to work so that they are embedded in the community. That must be looked at. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has a private Member’s Bill on that matter, and there must be serious discussion about allowing asylum seekers the right to work.
I am proud to have an office manager who is a refugee, who had family members murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime. When she came to this country, her father was working. Far from the rhetoric that we heard about the Labour party being left wing, it was the Labour party that took my office manager’s father’s national insurance from him. The then Labour Government changed the law to stop asylum seekers having the right to work. I hope the hon. Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) will seriously consider that in his Bill and consider that asylum seekers, after a certain period, should have the right to work so that they can make the contribution that he wants them to make.
As a party, we believe that the Home Office’s response to the recent channel crossings displays a complete disregard for human suffering that is both shocking and shameful. Responding to the crossings in a dystopian, quasi-militaristic way, with surveillance technology, appointing a clandestine channel threat commander and positing the idea of bringing in the Royal Navy—later condemned by the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organisation for Migration—only reinforces the headlines that liken that failure of leadership to an invasion.
Contrary to the Department’s remarks, the reality is far from being the crisis the newspapers suggest it is. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in the UK said recently:
“The UK is far from the epicentre of the real challenge.”
Asylum claims in the UK—as I have said, and I will say it again—have fallen in 2020, as confirmed by Abi Tierney, the director general of UK Visas and Immigration, to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in September.
The response to the petition describes channel crossings as “unacceptable behaviour”. The Department seems unable to understand—or perhaps fails to mention—that it has already closed and is closing more safe legal routes for refugees to reach the United Kingdom. That is leaving extremely vulnerable individuals who are often fleeing unimaginable conditions, as the hon. Member for Strangford rightly pointed out, with little choice but to place their fate in the hands of criminal gangs. Furthermore, a report last year by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which the Home Secretary was a member at the time, said:
“In the absence of robust and accessible legal routes for seeking asylum in the UK, those with a claim are left with little choice but to make dangerous journeys by land and sea.”
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He said that migrants are compelled to cross the English channel to claim asylum. I respectfully point out that they are in France, typically northern France. France is a civilised and safe country with a well-functioning asylum system, and should anyone in northern France feel they need to claim asylum, they are perfectly able to do so there. They do not need to make one of those dangerous crossings.
That may very well be the Minister’s view. He will have an opportunity to say that, and I will perhaps make an intervention—[Interruption.] The Minister is harrumphing from a sedentary position. I am concerned for his welfare. He seems rather excitable, Sir David. Perhaps you can pass him a note and have a word just to calm him down. Thank you, Sir David.
The staggering leaked UK Government documents only prove that the Tory hostile environment towards immigration and immigrants is still alive and kicking. In response to the petition, the Home Office said:
“The UK has long been a sanctuary for those in need of international protection”.
Leaked documents provided evidence that the Home Office was considering wave machines to deter boats, nets to clog boats’ propellers and the transportation of asylum seekers more than 4,000 miles away to Ascension Island for processing. Those are preposterous suggestions and show how far the Government will go to drive home and engender the Brexit ideology that has already poisoned some of the political discourse in this country.
The Refugees Council policy manager, Judith Dennis, said that the UK must treat refugees and asylum seekers with dignity. Instead, those ridiculous proposals set an unsettling precedent, firing the starting gun of a race to the bottom in terms of treating refugees and asylum seekers with any humanity and compassion.
I believe that the asylum system must be fair and compassionate, but it must also be professional. I hope the Minister answers the question for which I have been trying to seek debates—unfortunately, I seem to be missing out on the ballots for either Westminster Hall or an Adjournment debate—about why a private company has been called in to process asylum claim interviews in the last couple of weeks. In secret, with no statement, either written or verbal, provided to hon. Members, a private company has been called in by the Home Office to carry out asylum claim interviews.
Is it Serco? It would not surprise us, let us be honest, if it was Serco, a company that has certainly been mentioned as carrying out these asylum claim interviews. What training and expertise does it have to carry them out? It really is, I suggest, quite ludicrous that a private company, be it Serco or any other, is being asked to carry out a quasi-legal process, which asylum claim interviews should be, under the aegis of a pilot programme. I hope the Minister will address the concerns that I and many Members of the House have on that issue.
I am conscious of time, and I want to allow the two other Front Benchers to speak. We keep being told that the asylum system is broken, yet the Government have had 10 years—over a decade. Does that mean that they have broken the system, and what are they going to do to fix it? I respectfully disagree with those who have signed the petition, and with all due respect to the hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken, I disagree with most of their remarks as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned that you have been here forever. I am not sure that that is the case, but I know of your association with the all-party parliamentary group on the Holy See, and your Urbi et Orbi before the recess every year certainly means that you are a well-known figure in the House. Of course, in that Chair, Sir David, you are infallible in matters of debate.
I thank the Petitions Committee for allocating the time for this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on leading it and on his speech. I also congratulate the hon. Members for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Redcar (Jacob Young), because not only did they win their seats but they beat very good Labour MPs, who were friends and colleagues of mine and who had worked incredibly hard in those seats. Do not think for a minute that the lessons that the Labour party has to learn on why and how we lost those seats are lost on me, because they are not.
I rather enjoyed the railing against the Trotskyist, Marxist liberal left, because as I think the Minister will testify, it certainly does not land many punches on me. Having led last week on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill for the Opposition, it certainly lends new ballast to my left-wing credentials that is much in need. All I would say is that some of the arguments that were rehearsed felt a little passé, because the Labour party is very much under new management.
As an MP for the north in the seat of St Helens, I very much take the point that my constituents, like those of the hon. Gentlemen I congratulated, have concerns about immigration that are in no way motivated by racism—quite the opposite. People are concerned about their jobs, the impact of coronavirus and what they see as a lack of Government support and action for the communities that they live in, so I caution them slightly on some of what they said about immigration being “the” priority for people in in the north of England, notwithstanding that they will know their constituencies much better than I will, of course.
Moving on to the substantive points raised, there is much that we could talk about, but I want to focus my remarks. We have all witnessed the increase in channel crossings in small boats over the summer months with huge concern. I recognise the strength of feeling in the petition and on this issue, and I know that seeing those boats for many people represents a breakdown in the systems that the Government have put in place to manage migration. I do not think that that is an unjustifiable view.
However, the issues here are complex and require a considered, compassionate and effective response. It is necessary that our words and actions both reflect an understanding of the harrowing and appalling circumstances that have resulted in many individuals and families taking extreme and desperate decisions, and also prevent any further exploitation by criminal gangs and traffickers of those facing such impossible decisions. We need to ensure that the United Kingdom’s strategy reflects our values—that we respect the rule of law and address illegality—and ensure that we provide safe and legal routes to those who have a case for seeking asylum here. I think there has been an inadequacy in delivering against some of those values, because what we need is calm, compassionate and rational decision-making, but I fear instead that we have had rhetoric over action.
This morning, as I walked my children to school before getting on the train to come to Westminster, I thought, “How dire would my circumstances have to be before I would let my family board an insecure dinghy across the channel?” Whatever challenges we personally have faced or that the communities that we proudly represent in this place have faced over the last months, we might all reasonably conclude that we would have to be completely without hope before it would even occur to us to do such a thing—a point made very eloquently by the hon. Member for Strangford.
However, that is the situation that many of these individuals are in. Over half of refugees globally originate from Syria, Afghanistan or South Sudan—countries that are completely ravaged by violence, chaos and destitution. Those who undertake the crossings understand the danger that they face, so the fact that they none the less make them shows us how desperate they feel their situation is.
I do not presume to understand all the push and pull factors involved as people continue to leave France and seek to come to the UK. However, we see the numbers of those deciding to undertake that journey. Will the Minister say what efforts are being made to understand those decisions, based on an analysis of the experiences of those who have crossed the channel? It is worth remembering that the vast majority of those who flee their homes to reach Europe never reach Calais at all. For example, Germany, France and Italy are all far more common destinations for migrants than the UK, for many reasons.
In our conversations with those working in asylum and immigration, the overwhelming motivation that we hear time and again for wanting to reach the UK is to be reunited with family who are already in the UK. Another common reason is that the person speaks English but not French and so would likely have more success in finding a job and a future in our country than they would elsewhere in Europe. The latter is not an impractical consideration, while the former is hugely understandable.
Given what the hon. Gentleman is saying about language barriers and the like, does he agree that at that point we are no longer discussing an asylum claim and are instead discussing migration and the need to move to England as an economic route, as opposed to for safe refuge?
There is a lot of conflation and confusion around the various types of immigration, but once a person has embarked upon a route to claim asylum, that is the only one open to them, because, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said, other avenues are no longer open. That is why it is important that a claim be processed promptly through a due legal route.
Also, given the predilection of the hon. Member for Redcar for pointing out Members who are not in this debate, I am keen to enable him to get back and join all my colleagues who are in the other debate on immigration, on the Floor of the House, lest his absence from it should be pointed out.
I have been disappointed by the Government’s response. The Minister knows me well enough to know that I make that point sincerely. Some of these issues need to be addressed. The first is the abolition of the Department for International Development. Arguably, doing that removes the support needed to address some of these issues at their source, and I have not yet heard a valid reason for why the Government have chosen to merge it with the Foreign Office.
We have also had these ludicrous proposals about Ascension Island and Saint Helena—I had to read it twice when I saw it in The Sunday Times, lest it was a reference to St Helens. Either would be preposterous, frankly. That shows a lack of strategy at the heart of Government around how we will get a grip of this issue.
I am fond of the Home Secretary, whom I know well and with whom I share interests in horse-racing and many other things—I am glad that none of my Back-Bench colleagues are here to hear that—but she should reflect on the divisive rhetoric that she has used. I am not sure it does justice to her or ministerial colleagues when she talks about the traffickers, the do-gooders, lefty lawyers and the Labour party as defending the broken system. To group together lawyers and Labour Members with human traffickers is really offensive and insulting. At first, I thought it was inappropriate and a bit beneath the dignity of the office of Home Secretary—one of the great offices of state—but subsequent events have proven it was quite dangerous. It has led to incidents where lawyers have felt their safety threatened. Human rights is not a bad word but something at which this country has been at the cornerstone of, through our role in the Council of Europe, the United Nations and other multilateral organisations throughout the world. We need to be careful about mistaking process issues with ad hominem attacks on individuals.
The frustrating thing is that, in spite of the rhetoric, the Home Office has not even been successful in achieving its commitment to deter these crossings. The closing down of other routes to the UK brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has caused exceptional pressures, but the number of migrants who crossed the channel in small boats in August 2020 was more than four times that of August 2019. It might be worth pointing out to hon. Members who arrived here with great gusto in December 2019 that we have had a Conservative Government, in whole or part, for 10 years, so all the criticisms made about the asylum system are suitably addressed to the Minister rather than the Opposition.
We need a practical, even-handed and realistic response. Many migrants arriving in Calais have legitimate claims for asylum, but they do not have practical or legal means to reach the UK. The strategy of deterring crossings from taking place is not working, so we need a renewed strategy. I am sure the shadow Home Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), would be happy, as he has offered, to discuss the ways in which we can work together to deter crossings and ensure that the system functions adequately for those in need. The strategy must therefore ensure that legal and pragmatic routes continue to function for those with legitimate claims for asylum—that due process.
Back in June, in response to an urgent question on asylum, the Minister told the House that last year the UK made 20,000 grants of protection or asylum. Those are cases in which, against strict criteria, the Government deemed that asylum should be granted in the UK. However, we must ensure that those safe and legal routes do not drive those whom the Government recognise as having a case to be heard into the arms of human traffickers, who profiteer on the back of human suffering. We must protect the route to allow legitimate attempts for those who seek to reunite with family in the UK. That is currently protected in the Dublin regulation, which we will not be part of once we leave the EU. I am therefore keen to hear what the Government propose to do, because if we do not do our bit, as per the Dubs scheme and the amendments being considered on the Floor of the House tonight, to ensure that unaccompanied children in dangerous situations are given safe haven, what kind of country can we claim to be? We should be proud of the role we have played throughout history in providing safe refuge, particularly to children who have fled the most awful horrors of war, famine and poverty.
As I have said, this is a complex situation that demands rational and reasonable solutions. It is a topic that provokes strong reactions among our constituents. We have heard that from Government Members, I have heard it in my constituency and many of my Labour party colleagues feel it too. However, I think most reasonable people would agree that the current situation, whereby migrants are forced to make hazardous trips across the channel to stand any chance of claiming asylum, is untenable. That is why, as I hope I have made clear, Labour is committed to ensuring that we protect and improve the pre-existing legal routes, that we do more to meet our international obligations, that we address illegality and that we command the confidence of the British public.
It is a great pleasure to serve, once again, under your chairmanship, Sir David, which is, as the shadow Minister said, always infallible. I thank the shadow Minister for his balanced remarks in summing up. It is fair to say no one would ever accuse him of being a Trotskyite, sadly something that one cannot say about every Member of his parliamentary party.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on securing the debate and presenting it on behalf of more than 100,000 petitioners, a majority of whom, we discovered, come from Redcar and Cleveland. My hon. Friend laid out a compelling, passionate and well-articulated description of why illegal immigration is a huge problem for our country. It undermines the rule of law, it undermines legal and safe routes, and it renders purposeless the routes that we, as a Parliament, have developed to decide who comes into the country and who does not. All those are undermined.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) powerfully and passionately pointed out that immigration can be an enormous force for good, when done within the rule of law. His own family story, which he set out, is a moving and powerful illustration of the enormous contribution that legal migration can make to our society, strengthening and contributing to it, as his father and his whole family have done. Our country is better, stronger and richer, in every sense, for the contribution made by my hon. Friend’s family and millions like them, who have made their home here legally.
Illegal migration undermines all of that. It undermines public confidence in the system, it puts immigration in a negative rather than positive light, and it makes it much harder to allow legal immigration if the whole system is undermined. In all honesty, we must admit that the small-boats crisis that has unfolded this summer is a sad and appalling example of illegal immigration undermining confidence in our system. The Government find it completely unacceptable and we are determined to stop it. We make no apology at all for saying that.
Illegal immigration is unacceptable for three reasons: it is dangerous, illegal and unnecessary. That it is dangerous is powerfully demonstrated by the tragic death earlier today, or yesterday, of a man believed to be aged between 20 and 40, and the sad death a few weeks ago of a Sudanese gentlemen aged 26. Those sad deaths in the channel demonstrate how dangerous the crossings are. We have a moral and a compassionate duty to prevent those crossings.
Secondly, these crossings are illegal. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) suggested the contrary, but let me say clearly that it is illegal to enter the country without leave under section 24(1)(a) of the Immigration Act 1971. The hon. Gentleman referred to provisions in article 31 of the refugee convention that say an entry to a country for the purposes of claiming asylum should not be a criminalised if someone has come “directly” from a dangerous territory. I submit that France is not a dangerous territory, and therefore the prohibition in article 31 of the refugee convention 1951, renewed by the 1967 protocol, does not apply. France is not dangerous and these crossings are categorically illegal.
They are not only dangerous and illegal, but unnecessary. Anyone wishing to claim asylum, or genuinely wishing to seek protection, can do so in one of the safe countries previously passed through. Clearly, there is France—everybody who crosses on a small boat has been in France—and typically people will have travelled through other countries, often including Germany, Italy, Spain and others. There will have been ample opportunities to claim asylum and protection previously. There may be reasons why people might prefer to claim asylum in the United Kingdom, such as the language, but those are not reasons of protection. Those are choices rather than a necessity. We should be clear: these journeys are not necessary for the purpose of securing protection.
I will come to the compassionate and safe routes in a moment. Before I do, let me briefly talk about some of the things that we are doing to prevent these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings. We are working with our colleagues in France on developing ever-increasing tactics to try to prevent the crossings. The French have been deploying larger numbers of gendarmes, police aux frontiers, brigades mobiles de recherche and others in northern France, and that is yielding fruit. This weekend, large numbers of interceptions have been made to prevent embarkations. On Saturday, just two days ago, the French police intercepted 220 people who were attempting a crossing. Yesterday, on Sunday, the French authorities intercepted 211 people. Only 62 got across, so the French successfully intercepted about 70% to 80% of the people who attempted a crossing. I pay tribute to them for the law enforcement work that they have been doing.
We have appointed a clandestine channel threat commander to co-ordinate United Kingdom activities—Dan O’Mahoney, a former Royal Marine, entered his post in August—and we are doing huge amounts of law enforcement work. We have so far this year made 89 arrests of people who committed offences in that regard, and we have disrupted 24 organised immigration crime groups that have been facilitating cross-channel traffic. A huge amount of work has been going on, and let me say that we intend to intensify and increase that activity. We intend to legislate next year to tighten up our system, but the legislation will have two elements to it. It will be firm, because it will take tough action against illegal immigration, but it will also be fair, in the sense that it will provide safe legal routes for genuine refugees.
Let me say a few words about the work that the United Kingdom has done so far on those safe legal routes. Since 2015, we have run a resettlement programme whereby we have taken people from conflict areas—for example, around Syria—and brought them directly to the United Kingdom. Rather than seeing people come from France, Italy or Greece, which are safe European countries—that is what the Dubs amendment did, by the way—we have gone directly to conflict zones, where people are in genuine danger, and brought them here. In that five-year period, 25,000 people have been brought directly to the United Kingdom. Over the five years, our resettlement programme is larger than any other European country’s resettlement programme.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised some points about that. I must say that I agree with him, in the sense that the resettlement programme focused, as Members will understand, largely on people of Syrian nationality. It did not reflect the pre-conflict population of Syria, because Christians were severely underrepresented. The hon. Member for Strangford and I led a debate back in July 2019 on the persecution that Christians suffer around the world. Indeed, Christians are the most persecuted group of any, globally, and I would like to see our future resettlement activity better reflect the persecution that Christians suffer around the world.
We offer many other legal and safe routes. We offer family reunion routes, which I think the hon. Member for Glasgow South West referred to. Even as we most likely leave the Dublin regulations in two and half months, the United Kingdom’s immigration rules provide for the family reunion of children joining their parents and, where compassionate and compelling circumstances exist and where the child’s best interest is served, reunion with aunts, uncles, grandparents and siblings. That safe and legal family reunion route does exist, can be used and is used.
Last year, we received roughly 3,700 applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in this country. We are currently looking after more than 5,000 UASCs. Both those numbers are higher than the equivalent figures for any other European country, including Greece. People talk about the Dubs amendment and bringing UASCs from Italy to the UK, but we already look after more UASCs than either Italy or Greece does. We do it very well—we look after them extremely well.
The shadow Minister mentioned overseas aid. We have not abolished overseas aid; we have merged it with the Foreign Office so that better co-ordination is possible. Since he mentions overseas aid, it is worth putting on record that we are the only G8 country to meet 0.7% of gross national income as spending on overseas aid. That amounted last year to some £14 billion. Not only do we have the top direct resettlement numbers of any European country and not only do we welcome more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children than any other European country; we are also the only European country to meet that 0.7% of GNI target. So anyone who suggests that the United Kingdom is not a generous and welcoming country is clearly not apprised of those facts.
However, with the compassion and fairness for which this country is famous, and which it will continue to demonstrate, comes an obligation to be firm on illegal immigration, for the reasons that my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich, for Wakefield, for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Redcar (Jacob Young) outlined so persuasively. I am afraid there is a lot more work to do, because our system is in many respects broken. It is possible for people who should not be in this country, including dangerous foreign national offenders, to submit very late claims that are essentially vexatious, with the purpose of preventing their removal. I have become painfully aware in my six months, so far, as one of the two Immigration Ministers, of a number of cases in which very dangerous foreign national offenders have repeatedly—five, six or seven times—over a number of years, at the last minute before the moment of removal or deportation, lodged claims that are subsequently found by the court to be wholly without merit. None the less they succeeded in frustrating the removal. We need to legislate to prevent that kind of abuse, because it brings our system into disrepute.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich mentioned a recent flight that was due to return to Spain, as required by the Dublin regulation—the European Union’s own regulation—people who had tried to claim asylum here having claimed asylum there previously, when a slew of last-minute legal claims, many of which subsequently proved to be without merit, caused the flight to be cancelled. Such abuse of the legal process—and I will be direct; it is, frankly, abuse—is not something that the Government are prepared to countenance any more. Therefore we shall legislate next year to fix that problem and other problems.
I want to take the Minister back to the subject of foreign nationals—particularly the criminal aspect of the matter. He makes a fair point, but does he agree that it is not the fault of so-called do-gooders and lawyers? Does he agree that the Government need to roll back on the rhetoric that we have heard from them against lawyers who represent asylum seekers?
Lawyers are clearly entitled—indeed, obliged—to represent their clients to the best of their ability, but there have been examples, including what was reported by The Times last week, of immigration lawyers encouraging their clients to make vexatious claims. In the example reported by The Times last week the Solicitors Regulation Authority quite properly took disciplinary action against those solicitors. We sometimes hear lawyers talking about pursuing politics through the courts, and that is not helpful.
Of course I accept that barristers, solicitors and other representatives are obliged and entitled to represent their clients to the best of their ability within the law, but last-minute meritless claims that are designed to frustrate the process do not help the system at all, and we need to put things on a better legislative footing to prevent the legal abuse that there has been. However, I of course do not dispute, as I have said, the right of lawyers to represent their clients to the best of their ability. Indeed, they are obliged to do so.
I do not wish to detain Members longer, given that the main event is happening on the Floor of the House as we speak. Let me reiterate that the Government are determined to protect our borders, determined to end these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings, and determined to end illegal immigration, but at the same time we are determined to ensure that we are fair and compassionate, and that those who genuinely need our protection around the world receive it.
I want to thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate and the Minister for his statement. I have had the benefit of discussing this matter before with the Minister. I am confident that this is not a simple thing to deal with. It is complex. It is not straightforward.
I appreciate that, as much the petitioners would like us to snap our fingers and sort the problem out, in many respects, the Government’s hands have been tied. Clearly, after 31 December, the Government will be in a much better position to take the kind of action we need to take to deal with this issue.
I may not have been quite clear, but I tried to say in my speech that I think there should be an expectation that someone who arrives in this country illegally will be sent back. Ultimately, there is a legal process to go through. If someone rejects that process by not following it, we must ask the question whether they are that different from anybody else who knowingly breaks the law. In my view, the answer to that question is “no”.
Many hon. Friends have made the point that there is a fact here. However good an individual may think their grounds are for claiming asylum and moving to Britain, at the end of the day they have come from a safe European country. My understanding is that an asylum seeker is someone fleeing from an unsafe country. If they are leaving a safe country, by definition, I struggle to see how they are a refugee. I am broadly comfortable with the Government’s position.
I know that the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) is pretty moderate and balanced. He spoke after my maiden speech. He seems like a nice guy. On the point of being under new management, we will see. Ultimately, I think that to deal with this issue effectively the Government will have to take some robust action. Legislation, such as an asylum Bill, will come through this House, and it will be interesting to see how Her Majesty’s Opposition react to that kind of legislation.
In terms of new management, it is an interesting tactic when the manager does not even send his players out on the pitch. Frankly, it sometimes feels like that is the case with the Leader of the Opposition. At some point, those players will have to be sent out on the pitch and will have to vote one way or another. Abstaining is not a long-term strategy. It is a long Parliament and time will tell. I do not mean to be too political, but clearly I have been.
I thank all the petitioners. This is a very important issue that matters to millions of people up and down the country. I thank all the hon. Members who contributed. I thank you for your wonderful chairmanship, Sir David, which I have had the pleasure of twice this afternoon—I have been spoilt. I thank the Minister, in particular, for a robust statement, which was reassuring and will reassure many of the people who signed this petition.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 321862 relating to immigration.