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Topical Questions

Volume 696: debated on Monday 7 June 2021

Since the House last met for Home Office questions, the anniversaries of several terror attacks have passed. I know that the House will want to join me in marking them and remembering those who have lost their lives in these terrible atrocities.

On 29 April 2013, Mohammed Saleem was stabbed to death as he returned from worshipping at his mosque. On 22 May 2013, Fusilier Lee Rigby was murdered near the Royal Artillery barracks in Woolwich. Exactly four years later, a bomb at the Manchester Arena killed 22 concertgoers and wounded hundreds more. On 3 June 2017, eight people were murdered and many more were wounded around London bridge and Borough market. Another anniversary is imminent: that of our much-loved and widely admired colleague Jo Cox, who was murdered on 16 June 2016. Last month saw the verdict of the inquest into the terror attacks at Fishmongers’ Hall in November 2019, which claimed the lives of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones.

The Government and our operational partners have taken action to strengthen the supervision of terror offenders on licence and end the automatic release of terrorist prisoners. We have improved information sharing and established world-leading counter-terrorism operation centres.

We all recognise how truly evil all those acts were, because they were directed at innocent people going about their daily lives, who were worshipping, listening to music or seeing their friends, as well as—at their best—doing public service for others. Yet the outpouring of grief and love that followed, the heroism of the first responders and the resolute way in which the British people refused to be cowed have shown the best of our country. Terrorists can hurt us, but they will never win. We will always honour those who were killed and the people who love them, and the Government will continue to give every support to the police and security services, who have worked tirelessly to keep us safe.

Does the Home Secretary recall that I wrote to her on 20 April on behalf of Aid to the Church in Need about the case of Maira Shahbaz? I still await a reply. Maira is a 15-year-old Christian girl from Pakistan, who was raped, abducted and kidnapped, and is now in hiding. We need to help her. Will the Home Secretary meet Aid to the Church in Need and me?

My right hon. Friend raises an incredibly important case. I have been working with colleagues in the House on this for a considerable period of time. I would be very happy to meet him and others. There have been some barriers around the case in the past, but I give him an assurance that we are proactively looking at all the help that we can provide.

I join the Home Secretary in remembering all the victims of terrorism to whom she referred. We send out a strong message from across the House that those who seek to divide us with hatred will never win. The words of our late friend and colleague Jo Cox that we have

“more in common than that which divides us”

seem particularly apt as we remember all those victims.—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.] I would also like to pass on my condolences to the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster).

Yet again, on the weekend, there was briefing about the easing of restrictions on 21 June possibly being put back to 5 July. It is the delta variant, first discovered in India, that is causing such great concern, after the Government dithered and delayed in adding India to the red list. Now we have had dangerous mixed messaging about the amber list. The Opposition have warned about this time and again. Can the Home Secretary tell us how many travellers from India arrived between 9 and 23 April, and how many people have arrived here from amber list countries since 17 May?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. Specifically with regard to health measures at the border, he will recognise that throughout this pandemic the Government have taken all the essential and necessary steps to protect the public and to help prevent the spread of the virus, and even more so as we emerge from the incredible vaccine roll-out programme.

The right hon. Gentleman will also recognise that we have the most stringent border measures in the world to protect public health because of that vaccine roll-out programme, and we have always followed scientific advice. That absolutely relates to the Indian variant and to the very strict border measures that have been backed by strict enforcement measures, along with compliance checks, not just by Border Force, who are checking 100% of all passengers coming into the country and leveraging fines of up to £10,000, but by the isolation assurance service. I would also point out that after topical questions, the Health Secretary will be making a further statement on covid and covid restrictions, which the right hon. Gentleman will be interested in and will want to pay attention to.

I did not detect an answer to either of my questions in that response, and the Home Secretary knows perfectly well that we do not have the most stringent border measures in the world. The only reasonable conclusion is that the Government are not learning from their mistakes and that our border protections are in chaos. It is a clear and dangerous pattern: late to home quarantining; late to mandatory testing at the border; late to hotel quarantining; and today, she cannot even say how many people arrived in the UK from India as the delta variant was taking hold. This is a Government who like to talk tough on borders, but is it not the truth that when it comes to protecting people from covid and its variants, this Government’s policy is weak, weak, weak?

It goes without saying that I fundamentally disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. I disagree with his assertion, which is absolutely incorrect, that the UK’s border measures are lax. From January last year, the Government set out a comprehensive set of measures ranging from Foreign Office advice and guidance right through to the development of the passenger locator form and the managed hotel quarantine service. That service now includes not only Heathrow airport but a range of airports such as Birmingham and Manchester because of the level of red-listing since April, which we have rightly taken seriously, and because of the Indian variant. We have followed all the scientific advice that has come from Government advisers with regard to the red-listing of India. This is well-trodden ground, and alongside that, all the facts have been published on the number of passengers who have come to our country from red-listed countries and the way in which the Government lists red countries and amber countries.

I remind those on both Front Benches that topical questions are meant to be short and punchy, so we do need to get on. I have quite a list.

I am sure that the Home Secretary must share my frustration and that of my constituents about the volume of migrants coming across the channel by dinghy, often being escorted here in the process. Can she assure my constituents when real action will be taken to stop this flow, and will she introduce a regime whereby people who try to claim asylum, and who come here from an already safe country such as France, will be automatically deported and sent back there? That will make a big difference in stopping them coming here in the first place. (900972)

My hon. Friend is already making the case for a Bill that has yet to be introduced in Parliament, which contains the new plan for immigration. The date is coming for its introduction and Second Reading. He is absolutely right: the British public are fed up and demoralised by what we have been seeing. I have been very clear to my Department over the last 12 months about operational activity from Border Force, and I have now asked the Department to urgently investigate the circumstances behind the incidents at the weekend that have been reported on. My hon. Friend makes a fundamental point, which is that people who are seeking to claim asylum should claim asylum in the first safe country. They should not be making these dangerous crossings, which, as we have heard today, have led to catastrophic and devastating loss of life too many times.

May I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), on her forthcoming trip to Wembley?

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. When I asked the Home Secretary in February whether she followed public health advice when putting people in large dormitories in Napier barracks in the middle of a pandemic, she told our Committee that it was

“all based on Public Health England advice”

and that

“we have been following guidance in every single way”.

Last week, however, a damning court judgment said:

“The ‘bottom line’ is that the arrangements at the Barracks were contrary to the advice of PHE… The precautions which were taken were completely inadequate to prevent the spread of Covid”.

It stated that the outbreak was “inevitable”. Will the Home Secretary now correct the record and explain why she did not follow public health advice in the middle of a pandemic, thus putting people’s health and lives at risk?

First, let me be very clear to this House that at every single stage I have been clear about the need to protect public health and to stop the spread of the virus, and that is in relation to Napier barracks, which the right hon. Lady is referring to. Of course we will study the judgment and, in the light of that, look at various measures we may need to bring in. However, the Department did work fully with Public Health England—I have maintained that, and I still maintain that point. When it comes to delivery and putting in place the wide range of covid-compliant measures that were in place—everyone in this House and across the country would expect that of the Home Office—we were absolutely dealing with the pandemic in the right way, working with PHE and other stakeholders. For the benefit of the House, let me say that that also included rigorous cleaning, hand sanitiser, social distancing and a range of healthcare provisions and welfare provisions that were put in place at Napier. So I come back to the point that at every stage I was clear about—

I welcome that the recent Queen’s Speech said that the sovereign borders Bill will come forward in this Session, but in recent weeks thousands of illegal migrants have crossed the English channel, as we have heard. What actions will the Department take now to ensure that both the French authorities and the UK Border Force are not aiding and abetting such illegal and dangerous crossings? (900973)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right again on this point. I have mentioned that in my own instructions, I have been very clear with my Department and with the commander who oversees these Border Force operations that they should not be going into French territorial waters—that is absolutely wrong and there is now an investigation into that. Fundamentally, our work with the French continues, but, working with our counterparts in Belgium and in the Netherlands, where I was last week, we have to work upstream to stop these illegal crossings and break up the gangs who are facilitating illegal migration.

May we have apologies from the Home Secretary, first, to the thousands of destitute asylum seekers across the UK who have endured days and weeks without any support because of the botched handling of the Aspen card handover and, secondly, to the people she placed in danger, including through an inevitable coronavirus outbreak, by sending them to Napier barracks, against clear PHE advice? What has been done to fix these latest asylum system scandals?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments I made earlier about Napier barracks. Let us be clear that the Government are absolutely doing everything possible—I make no apology for this—within my powers, to meet our legal duties to provide shelter and accommodation to those in need during the exceptional times of this coronavirus pandemic. Of course, that is in line with the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, and that also refers to the way in which we financially support and house asylum seekers.[Official Report, 17 June 2021, Vol. 697, c. 4MC.] When it comes to Napier barracks, the provisions had been put in place in terms of welfare, catering, accommodation, cleaning, laundry facilities and non-governmental organisation support, along with other recreational facilities, such as yoga classes, and migrant helplines. That is all in line with our statutory duties and responsibilities, so I simply do not agree with the representation of the hon. Gentleman.

This year, more than 3,500 men, women and children have illegally crossed the channel, after paying thousands and thousands of pounds to evil human trafficking gangs. If the Home Secretary were the President of France, would she not be totally embarrassed by the complete failure of the French Government to properly look after asylum seekers in France, to such an extent that they risk their lives to flee France to get to England? (900974)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We are working with our French counterparts—I will be very clear about that—and we should recognise that upstream migration flows into France are a serious issue. But, of course, asylum seekers should be claiming asylum in the first safe country; that does include France, and it includes many other EU member states that, because of the open borders policy across the EU, people are just transiting through. Our French counterparts absolutely must do more, and we are constantly impressing this point on them.

In January I asked the Home Secretary about Napier barracks, highlighting the unsafe, inhumane conditions. She told me “to listen to the facts”—[Official Report, 26 January 2021; Vol. 688, c. 178.]Well, here are the facts. On Thursday the High Court ruled that the conditions were unlawful. They were described as “squalid” in court, and evidence suggests that Public Health England guidance was not, and is still not, being followed. So I ask the Home Secretary: how many people are currently sleeping in each dormitory, why is Public Health England guidance still not being followed, and why did she claim that the standards were very high when they were unlawful? (900971)

That is absolutely incorrect in terms of the misrepresentation from the hon. Lady. I have already made it abundantly clear that I have been vigorous in following and making clear the need to protect public health and stop the spread of the virus. Not only that: I make no apology for doing everything in my power to fulfil our legal duties to provide shelter to people who otherwise would have been destitute; to provide accommodation to people who otherwise have been sleeping in dirty, makeshift tents in France and in other European countries, on the streets; and to provide them with beds, food, clean sanitation, access to healthcare and access to welfare provision. That is not putting forward squalid conditions.

The Home Secretary will know that I am a steadfast supporter of hers, but I now need her help. How can I explain to my constituents, and indeed to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke), that the repeated images of Border Force vessels bringing illegal immigrants to our shores, and judges’ ruling that Army barracks are not good enough for those immigrants when they are for our brave armed forces, are events aligned with taking back control of our borders and laws? (900976)

My hon. Friend makes a very important, and in fact poignant, point about some of the reforms we will be making through our new plan for immigration, which will absolutely tackle many of these issues, bringing in a one-stop shop and stopping the appeals that we face again and again, which stop us actually removing individuals who should not be claiming asylum in the United Kingdom or who are here illegally. Fundamentally, these reforms, when they come through the House, will absolutely set the tone for reform of our asylum system and send a very clear message to those seeking to claim asylum and come to our country illegally that they should be claiming asylum in the first safe country and not taking dangerous and perilous journeys across the channel.

Can I just say that I really am disappointed that we only got 10 questions in within 15 minutes? All Members deserve an opportunity to get their question in. I hope that those Members who took longer than normally expected will think about others next time. So please, Front Bench, we need speedier replies.

We are now going to suspend the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.