[1st Allocated Day]
I have to report that the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition has been selected.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The British people have had enough of open borders and uncontrolled immigration; enough of a failed asylum system that costs the taxpayer more than £1 billion a year; enough of dinghies arriving illegally on our shores, directed by organised crime gangs; enough of people drowning on these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary journeys; enough of people being trafficked and sold into modern slavery; enough of economic migrants pretending to be genuine refugees; enough of adults pretending to be children to claim asylum; enough of people trying to gain entry illegally ahead of those who play by the rules; enough of foreign criminals, including murderers and rapists, who abuse our laws and then game the system so that we cannot remove them.
You have been in for 11 years!
The British people have had enough of being told that none of these issues matter. They have had enough of being told that it is racist even to think about addressing public concerns, and to want to fix this failed system.
Who says that?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to either intervene or listen.
The British people have repeatedly voted to take back control of our borders, something that the Labour party has repeatedly voted against and complained about. The British people finally have a Government who are listening to them, because our priorities are the people’s priorities. For the first time in decades, we will determine who comes in and out of our country. Our plans will increase the fairness of our system.
I hope my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I intervene in this way, but she is giving the impression that no Conservative Government since 2010 have tried to address these issues. Can I assure her, on the basis of six years in the Home Office, that they have been addressed? I will refer in my speech to the fact that Governments constantly have to look at these issues relating to immigration, rather than thinking that one piece of legislation will deal with the problem forever.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point, which the Labour party should also recognise. A little earlier, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) said, “In 11 years, what have you done?” As my right hon. Friend has just pointed out, cumulative efforts have been made—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) would like to listen as well. It is important to note that over the years —my right hon. Friend is right, and in fact I am going to refer to a piece of legislation with which she will be familiar—change did come in, but unfortunately, for a range of reasons, the system is now being abused and gamed.
Will the Home Secretary give way?
Will the Home Secretary give way?
I will give way shortly.
Our plan will increase the fairness of our system so that we can better protect those who are in need of genuine asylum. That is absolutely right, and it is important that we have that fair principle. However, it will also do something that I sense does not interest the Labour party: it will deter illegal entry to the UK, and, importantly, will break the business model of the smuggling gangs and protect the lives of those whom they are endangering.
One of the big problems at present is the very long time that it takes to determine asylum applications. Since the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), left the Home Office, the number of case workers has gone up but the number of decisions has gone down in every single year. Why has that catastrophic fall in productivity been allowed to occur?
I shall go on to refer specifically to the time it takes to process cases, but the right hon. Gentleman will also be familiar with the number of appeals involved. This is not just about initial decisions; it is about the system itself, seen from an end-to-end perspective. That is why—and I will go on to make this case as well—in our new plan for immigration, as the right hon. Gentleman and all other Members will be aware, we are speaking about comprehensive end-to-end reform of the asylum system that looks at every single stage.
Will the Home Secretary explain why the number of initial decisions—not appeals—made by the Home Office dropped by 27% between 2015 and 2019, before the pandemic started?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. In relation to the initial decision making—this point is absolutely in our new plan for immigration—we are looking not just at caseworkers, but at digitalising the system to make it much more efficient. The fact is that when more cases are coming in that are down to things such as illegal immigration—people being exploited by coming into the country illegally—the number of cases in the system has gone up. That is a fact. Cases have gone up over a significant period of time.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I will shortly, but I am going to make a bit of progress. It is important to reflect on the fact that when it comes to reforming the immigration system and tackling many of these complex issues, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. I think it is important for all right hon. and hon. Members to recognise that we would be kidding ourselves if we thought there was a silver bullet and said, “There is one thing that could be done.” There are a range of cumulative issues that this legislation seeks to address.
When we launched our new plan for immigration, Labour effectively spoke out about many of the measures in the Bill and in the new plan for immigration. I think it is fair to say that the Opposition seem to think that the British people have the wrong priorities when it comes to tackling issues of migration and illegal entry.
I will give way shortly, but I want to make progress first. The Opposition argue that it is wrong to deport murderers, rapists and dangerous criminals—[Interruption.] It is a fact. They think that border controls are wrong. They think that ending free movement is wrong. Well, Labour Members can sigh and shake their heads, but the fact of the matter is that over the last 12 months, when it has come to ending free movement and having discussions about reforming immigration and our points-based system, they seem to think that open borders are the answer. They obviously do not support our new plan for immigration. They do not like the people’s priorities when it comes to these issues, yet they have no plan.
The public seem to want a fair, fast and affordable system, so can the Home Secretary tell the public how much more the taxpayer will pay for her new proposals?
In fact, the taxpayer will be saving money in the long run. We already spend over £1 billion a year on dealing with the failed and broken asylum system. If the hon. Gentleman has read the Bill and the new plan for immigration, which I urge him to do, he will see that there are a range of measures—
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I am extremely grateful. Is not the truth of the matter that too often our courts exaggerate the significance of international treaties and obligations and, by so doing, frustrate the process by which we deport illegal immigrants, including large numbers of foreign criminals?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for his observation. There are a range of aspects, certainly through this Bill, that we are seeking to address in order to make courts and immigration tribunals more efficient. It is wrong for them to have endless appeals, where individuals frustrate the appeals process and clog up the system. It is right that we do that because otherwise there will be individuals—genuine people seeking to claim asylum—who are simply not getting their cases heard, and we want to make sure that we can give them the support.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
No, I will not.
For years, people have risked their lives to enter our country, such as those crossing the channel in dangerous boats to claim asylum. [Interruption.] I have been generous in giving way and I will give way again shortly, but I would like to make progress.
If there were simple and straightforward solutions to many of these challenges—my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) has touched on this—issues such as illegal migration to the UK would have been resolved by now, but illegal entry to the UK and the subsequent claims of asylum have become complex because of the nature of cases that arise. But I am absolutely clear that no one should seek to put their life, or the lives of their family, in the hands of criminals to enter the UK illegally, and I would like to think that that is an important point that this House can unite on.
The Bill will finally address the issues that over a long period of time, cumulatively, have resulted in the broken system that we have now. It is a system that is being abused, allowing criminals to put the lives of the vulnerable at risk, and it is right that we do everything possible and find measures to fix this and ensure that a fair asylum system provides a safe haven to those fleeing persecution, oppression and tyranny.
We are receiving emails saying that this Bill is somehow cruel to illegal migrants, but is not the cruellest thing to do nothing? This very day, hundreds of people are putting their life at risk by crossing the channel. If we close these loopholes, if we clear up the doubts about human rights legislation and if we create safe havens, this trade will stop dead, as it did for Australia.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are many ways in which we can address this problem, and creating safe and legal routes, which are in the Bill and are something I have spoken about many times, will build upon the generosity of our country. We are generous as a nation when it comes to providing refuge and support to people fleeing persecution, but what we have to do right now is stop this trade in which people are being exploited so that they can come to the country illegally.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
No, I am giving way to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has been waiting patiently.
I thank the Home Secretary for giving way. One of the things that greatly concerns me and others in this House, and I know it concerns her, is the children held in immigration detention. The figure has dropped since 2019, down to 73, but they often arrive having been separated from their family, or they arrive unaccompanied, unaware that they will be placed in detention straightaway. What will be done to help children in particular?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I will shortly address some of these wider issues, but obviously, along with our work on safe and legal routes, we have to provide the right pathways and a secure environment for children to rebuild their lives. That is at the heart of our work in being humane, compassionate and fair.
Our system is overwhelmed, and it is a strong point of reflection that, because of the trends we have been seeing in organised immigration crime and gangs that are effectively exploiting vulnerable individuals, we now need to be able to provide support and to understand where those needs are coming from. Genuine people are being elbowed aside by those who are paying traffickers to come to our country.
I will not give way.
As a nation, we have always stepped up to support refugees in need, and rightly so. This is a great source of national pride for our country, and of course that will never change.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
No, I will not give way.
Since 2015, more than 25,000 refugees have been resettled in the UK from regions of conflict under formal schemes, more than in any other European country. Again, reflecting on the comment made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, this has happened at a time when we have seen all sorts of challenges around the world and have seen people fleeing persecution, oppression and conflict.
In addition, more than 29,000 close relatives have joined those refugees in the UK over the past five years. Our country is not mean spirited or ungenerous towards asylum seekers, as some may claim.
May I gently say to the right hon. Lady that I do not think the issue is whether we are mean spirited or generous? The issue is whether the legislation that she is introducing will actually solve the problem. Every single Member of this House is opposed to illegal migration and every single Member of this House hates the trafficking that has made many vulnerable people put their children in terrible positions, through no will of their own. If we really are to have an end-to-end solution, do we not need to be able to answer the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the Chair of the Homes Affairs Committee? Do we not all have to be able to say how we will make sure that the factors that push so many people out of their country, when they would much prefer to stay, are dealt with?
If the hon. Gentleman had followed much of the work undertaken by the Home Office prior to the introduction of the Bill, and if he had looked at our new plan for immigration, he would fully appreciate the end-to-end work that is already in train. There is a lot of upstream work to go after criminals outside the United Kingdom, not just in France but across Europe. We do a great deal of work with our partners around the world and across Europe on intelligence to go after criminal gangs, but he will recognise that that is one component of our work.
I have already spoken about the refugees we have resettled from parts of the world where there has been oppression and conflict. It is a fact that, since 2015, this Government, with the generosity of the British public, have spent billions of pounds on accommodation, education, healthcare and amenities to resettle people and keep them in their own regions. That is absolutely right. I can say from my time as Secretary of State for International Development that economic development in countries upstream is at the heart of everything we do. Of course, there is much more that we need to do on that.
I will give way just one more time.
This is a really important point. The vast majority of people who, as the Secretary of State said earlier, put their children at risk by putting them on boats to cross the channel are doing so only because they were forced to leave their country—they did not do so of their own free will. The more we can do to prevent that happening at source will, in the end, save us from some of this headache, will it not?
There are a number of points to make on the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. First and foremost, no one would dispute the work that we do in other countries around the world, or how vital it is. All of our Governments have had a very strong record on that—on investment in people, in livelihoods, in women and girls, and in economic empowerment. That is fundamental to the work of the Government and always has been.
Secondly, we must recognise that, given the trends we are seeing in illegal migration, the majority of people entering the UK illegally are travelling through safe countries across the EU where they could claim asylum. Indeed, the figures bear this out. France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Greece are all safe countries, yet these people are being trafficked through those countries. Furthermore, the majority of people entering the United Kingdom are young men, not women and children, and they are paying the people smugglers to push those women and children to one side. That is why—
If I may just finish my remarks before I go back to my speech. That is why our focus is on creating safe routes and looking at what we can do outside the United Kingdom to help support women and children and families to come to the United Kingdom to resettle. These are important principles that we have already established in our resettlement schemes, and we do want to do much more in this area.
My right hon. Friend is making a very good speech. As we can see from the Bill, much needs to be done. I want to draw her attention to part 4, which deals with modern slavery. I was very proud when the Centre for Social Justice brought forward the paper and very proud that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) brought forward the world’s first legislation on this subject. There are problems with part 4. I gently ask her and her team to retain an open mind about changes that may come forward, because we really do want to lead the world on this and be generous to those who are not just trafficked, but trafficked for the most abominable reasons.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will know from our discussions that we will continue to work with him and others to ensure that we are doing the right thing. I will come to part 4 later in my remarks, but let me expand on exactly where we are seeing the problems and anomalies within the system. Of course we want to close them down, because modern slavery is absolutely abhorrent, but there are key elements that we also need to address.
I cannot let the comment from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) just pass. He made the point that people who seek asylum here are always fleeing their country because of persecution. I have many concerns about the immigration Bills that have been passed in this place, many by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the former Prime Minister. It is naive to think that the people coming through irregular routes are only seeking asylum for reasons of persecution. There are a large number who are seeking asylum based purely on economic migration. Is that not one reason why separating out regular and irregular people is such an important change in the way that we are pursuing the legislation?
My hon. Friend is right, and that is where the system becomes conflated and there is no separation between the two. He is absolutely right to make that point.
I will not give way. [Interruption.] I have been very generous in taking interventions, and I would like to make some progress.
It is important to reflect on the fact that, when it comes to anyone claiming asylum in the UK—this is established in long-standing legislation—we have a statutory duty in relation to accommodation, subsistence, cash and transportation. The system, as I have already mentioned to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), is currently costing the taxpayer more than £1 billion a year. It is right that we look to reform the system, and not just to make it efficient but to ensure that we do the right thing. The very principle of seeking refuge has clearly been undermined by those who are paying to travel through safe countries and then claiming asylum in the UK. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) said, many of those are economic migrants and not just those fleeing persecution. People should be claiming asylum in the first safe country that they reach and not using the UK as a destination of choice. That is why our intention is to work—
Will the Home Secretary give way?
Will the Home Secretary give way?
I will not; I have given way several times now.
Our intention is to address the wider system to fix this problem so that we can help those who are in genuine need to resettle here. We are strengthening through the Bill the safe and legal ways in which people can enter the UK, adopting a fair and firm approach. From today, I will be granting indefinite leave to remain to refugees resettled under our world-leading resettlement schemes, giving them the vital freedom to succeed from the moment that they arrive in our country and, importantly, offering certainty and stability to help them rebuild their lives from day one.[Official Report, 22 July 2021, Vol. 699, c. 9MC.] That is absolutely the right thing to do. From that, we can also learn and build better schemes going forward.
We also want to continue to strengthen our proud record to support those in need, such as, over the past few months, the brave Afghan nationals who have worked alongside our brave military and who are now benefiting from a bespoke resettlement scheme. That is in addition to the type of scheme we have set up for British nationals overseas from Hong Kong whose liberties were restricted and who are now able to live freely in the UK, with a full pathway to citizenship, thanks to the route that we opened up this year. We will always give people coming through safe resettlement schemes the support that they need, which is of course the right thing to do. From learning English to gaining employment and training, they will gain essential skills to build a new life in the UK. New pilots to support refugees into work are already happening. Community sponsorship schemes that are well-established and have been established over recent years are making an enormous difference and helping local communities to support refugees directly. We want to do more, and we are empowering more schemes like these every day.
Those displaced by conflict and violence will also be able to benefit from access to our global points-based immigration system to enable skilled people who have been displaced and who have fled their homes to come to the UK safely and legally through established routes. We will work with the charity Talent Beyond Boundaries and other partners on this pilot project. Up to 100 refugees in Jordan and Lebanon will be supported first to gain sponsorship from a UK employer. These are the types of schemes that we will continue to build on.
This is in addition to our world-leading resettlement schemes. Providing greater support to refugees arriving safely will reduce the incentive to enter the country dangerously and illegally, because when the British people object to illegal entry, they are right to make the case as to it being absolutely abhorrent. In 2020, 8,500 people arrived in the UK by small boat, 87% of whom were men and 74% of whom were aged 18 to 39. Those who claim that it is heartless to stop these illegal crossings have it all the wrong way round, because it would be heartless and immoral to let them continue to do so through these dangerous and perilous journeys. People have drowned in the channel, and thousands, some only recently, just three weeks ago, have died in the Mediterranean.
It is not just illegal sea journeys that are lethal. One of my first and saddest tasks as Home Secretary was to respond to the devastating and, really, preventable deaths of 39 Vietnamese people in a trailer found in Essex. The judge described their deaths through suffocation as “excruciatingly painful”. This terrible crime was organised by a gang; it was all gang activity. In recognition of the severity of this appalling crime, five members of the people-smuggling gang were jailed, with two ringleaders going down for 20 and 27 years respectively. Two lorry drivers were imprisoned on manslaughter charges with sentences of 18 years and 13 years, four months. Such cases are not just heartbreaking; there is only one word for them: they are evil. We have a moral duty to prevent such appalling atrocities from happening again. There is simply no justification for what is going on. People-smugglers are motivated by profit. They line their pockets with the takings to finance other crimes such as drugs and firearms-trafficking. They do not organise illegal entry by small boat and in the back of lorries out of kindness.
Three weeks ago, to give another example, late at night, I received what I can only describe as a sickening call from officials at the Home Office. They told me of reports of a family attempting to make their way across the channel who had been separated. They said that people smugglers in northern France had forced a mother and father to get into a small boat at gunpoint. They said that their family, their two young daughters, would be put in the next boat to make the crossing. When the parents refused to be separated from their children, the people smugglers threatened them again.
The anguish and distress of those parents is absolutely unthinkable, but it is all too common for families to be put into many such perilous situations by criminal gangs. Organised gangs involved in exploiting and trafficking children are of course involved in modern-day slavery. We have also had recent accounts of facilitators using violence. The threat of guns and violence has now become the norm. The threat of violence also includes rape to control people. We are talking about unimaginable wickedness. We cannot, in good conscience, fail to act. We have a moral obligation to stop this vile trade, because human beings are not cargo.
The status quo is entirely unacceptable. That is why I and this Government will look at all options—every option—and work with international partners on how to fix the system and save lives. We are determined to smash the criminal gangs who cause such misery. We are absolutely determined to break their business model.
Let me turn to the key measures in the Bill. It is illegal to arrive in UK waters without permission. Those who bring migrants to the UK and facilitate illegal entry will now face a life sentence. That criminal and exploitative behaviour can now be punished with the severity it rightly deserves. A maximum prison sentence for entering the country illegally will increase from six months to four years. We are sending—we need to send—a signal to those criminal gangs that there is increased risk of paying for propping up criminal activity to get to the UK illegally.
The Bill will also give Border Force additional powers, including powers to seize vessels used to facilitate illegal entry to the UK. Border Force will be able to search all freight for people suspected of seeking illegal entry, to prevent illegal trafficking and facilitation, like the case of almost 50 minors who were found recently hidden in tiny crevices in the back of a lorry with no chance of escape. This is what we are dealing with.
In addition to the changes and the powers for Border Force, we intend to make the border fully digital, which will not only allow us to count people in and out, but, importantly, help us to stop dangerous people coming here. Anyone who is not a British or Irish citizen will need to provide more information about themselves before they travel, including any history of criminality. Electronic travel authorisations have been a major step in our border security. Carriers will check that passengers have the digital authorisation, or another form of digital permission such as a visa, before they travel. They will risk a civil penalty if they fail to deny boarding to those without permission. We are also increasing the maximum penalty for hauliers caught entering the UK with an illegal migrant onboard from £2,000 to £5,000.
In addition to many of the changes included in the Bill, we will introduce new accommodation and reception centres, which are already used by many countries across Europe and elsewhere. They will provide new accommodation for processing and speeding up claims, and that will include the reforms to and digitisation of much of our own processes within the Home Office. Asylum seekers will be allocated to accommodation centres by the Department and the Home Secretary, rather than being dispersed across the United Kingdom, as we do already.
Currently, detained appeals are subject to the same rules as non-detained appeals. There is no set timeframe in which decisions have to be made. That can result in appeals taking a long time. We will reinstate an accelerated appeals process that is fast enough to enable claims to be dealt with from detention, while ensuring that a person who is detained has fair access to justice. That will expedite the removal of people without a legitimate need to claim asylum in the UK.
In recent years we have seen some of the most shocking cases of grown adults—mostly men—claiming asylum as children. Through deception, they have been able to access children’s services and education, leading to the most worrying cases and safeguarding issues. This Bill will change how someone’s age is assessed. Many countries around the world and across the EU already employ safe scientific methods, and we will start to do so. This will stop people falsely claiming to be children and protect genuine children from being moved into the adult asylum system.
The British public are incredulous that it is so hard to remove foreign criminals and failed asylum seekers from our shores. We are therefore amending the early removal scheme to help us to remove foreign criminals from the UK as early as possible. The British people have also had enough of foreign criminals getting one over on us. One foreign national offender first claimed asylum in 2001. He chose to leave the UK voluntarily in 2009, re-entering in 2011 with his wife and child and claiming asylum for a second time. He was deported in 2015 after a 15-month sentence for sexual assault on a child. He returned to the UK in breach of a deportation order in 2017 and was arrested and detained. He then went on to make a fresh asylum claim. He then appealed that refusal and eventually exhausted his rights to appeal.
In detention, this man sewed his lips together, refused food or fluid and declined healthcare. Then, in 2018, he was released on health grounds with electronic monitoring. He appealed this decision through the family courts and a hearing was scheduled for months later, acting as a barrier to removal. Then, in early 2018, he cut off his electronic tag. In 2019, he was arrested on suspicion of murder after his estranged wife was found dead. That is not justice, and it shows that our system is simply not working. Things cannot continue like this, and we must change the law so that we can remove dangerous foreign criminals and ensure that justice is done.
The Bill raises the minimum sentence for any foreign criminal who returns to the UK in breach of a deportation order from six months to five years.[Official Report, 22 July 2021, Vol. 699, c. 9MC.] It speeds up appeals and stops the endless cycle of baseless claims. People who are subject to removal action often wait until the very last minute to make a challenge, leading to cancelled flights and delayed removals—I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead could recount many tales from her time as Home Secretary—and this has become standard practice when it comes to too many of these cases with foreign national offenders and others.
Time and time again, we see murderers, rapists and child abusers launching numerous last-minute claims to attempt to try to stay in the UK. That simply is not right. These last-minute claims and appeals mean that criminals can thwart removal from our country, even when they are on the tarmac ready to be removed from the UK. We have had far too many cases like that, and we and the British public are sick of it.
Through this Bill, all protection-related issues will need to be raised up front and in one go, and that includes, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) has already said, claims of modern-day slavery. It will stop the endless cycle of people raising repeated claims to frustrate their removal. Our approach is fair, but firm. It is firm where we have seen too many abuses over many years and, in fact, decades. The notice period of an intention to remove someone will be standardised, and we will provide fair access to justice and legal advice for individuals.
Slavery is one of humanity’s greatest evils, and it has never gone away. It was a Conservative Government who pushed through the Modern Slavery Act 2015, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead when she was Home Secretary. The House recognises—we all do—that she deserves immense credit for the work that she undertook. It was an act of good faith that other countries have since been inspired to follow. We will continue, as we have done, to protect victims of modern slavery by creating a statutory grant of leave for confirmed victims. They of course need the time and the support to recover from their horrendous and appalling ordeals, and the authorities also need time to bring perpetrators to justice.
I would also like to pay tribute to many colleagues in the House and to policing partners as well, who have worked diligently. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has already mentioned the Centre for Social Justice, but we have worked with policing partners as well to look at many of the cases around law enforcement and bringing perpetrators to justice—how difficult some of those cases are. But the law on modern slavery is being exploited.
Will the Home Secretary give way?
No, I will not.
Will the Home Secretary give way?
The hon. Gentleman will have his chance to speak shortly.
There has been an alarming increase in the number of illegal entrants and foreign national offenders, including child rapists and people who pose a national security risk seeking modern-day slavery referrals to avoid immigration detention and frustrate removal from the UK.
One individual, who was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK, had that leave revoked following persistent offending that led to a prison sentence adding to more than 12 months. They were subject to a deportation order, a decision upheld by the courts. On the day that they were due to be removed, they went on to make an asylum claim. Once that was refused, they claimed to be a victim of modern slavery in relation to incidents several years before they came to the United Kingdom. This was then referred to the national referral mechanism, which rightly identifies and supports victims of modern slavery. Decisions on these cases currently take around 12 months, with a low bar for postponing removal. The person was released from detention and their removal was postponed. They subsequently absconded and went on to commit further serious offences.
The Bill contains vital measures to ensure that victims are identified as quickly as possible, while making it easier to distinguish between genuine and non-genuine accounts of modern slavery. It is absolutely right, as I have said throughout my remarks this afternoon, that we are doing the right thing to support genuine victims and genuine asylum seekers. This is where we absolutely need to reform the system, to close down loopholes and gaps that are being exploited by those who have been a harm to British citizens and who have no legal right to be in the UK.
Help and support will be available where there are reasonable grounds to believe that a person is a victim, rather than that they may be a victim. People claiming asylum or human rights protections will be required to provide relevant information relating to being a victim of slavery or human trafficking within a specified period. In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, I say that this is exactly the area where we need to do more work. We will absolutely work with Members of the House and other organisations to make sure that we have the right protective measures in place for those who have absolutely been victims of modern-day slavery.
The Home Secretary is being most generous in giving way. The time in which people are granted leave to remain has a bearing on whether we can prosecute those who are guilty, because they need to be settled, in a settled state, able to give evidence and not fearing what will happen next. This will have a huge impact on the ability to prosecute those who traffic them.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Without going into detail here, I give him the assurance that this is effectively what we are seeking to achieve and are working on right now. The point has been very well made by him and by the Centre for Social Justice. Linked to his comment, it is right that we pool all our resources into helping genuine victims of modern slavery and that we do not allow dangerous foreign criminals, who are effectively pushing aside real victims, to go on to abuse the system for their own despicable means.
We already maintain a list of safe countries that consistently adhere to international human rights law, to stop people delaying removal by falsely claiming that their human rights are at risk. Every EU country will be on that list, as they are safe countries. That speaks to the point frequently made and discussed in this House that people moving through safe countries—through EU member states—should seek to claim asylum in the first safe country, not to come to the UK as a destination of choice. Furthermore, we are taking a power to allow us to remove countries from the list as well as adding them to it, so that the list can remain relevant and appropriate to our needs as assessments change.
If someone’s human rights claim is clearly unfounded, there will no longer be a right to appeal. Whether someone has complied with the asylum or removal process will also be considered when deciding whether to grant immigration bail. Other countries must co-operate when taking back those citizens who have no right to be in the UK. If countries do not co-operate in the return of their nationals, their access to our generous, fast and open visa system will be at risk. Every effort will be made to remove those who enter the UK having travelled through a safe country in which they could and should have claimed asylum.
For the first time, how people arrive in our country will impact on how their claim is progressed. Those we cannot remove but whose claims prevail will receive only temporary status with limited entitlements. Anyone who arrives in the UK via a safe third country may have their claim declined and be returned to a country they arrived from or a third safe country.[Official Report, 22 July 2021, Vol. 699, c. 9MC.] People who make a successful claim after arriving via another safe country may receive new temporary protection status without the same benefits and entitlements, and that will be reassessed periodically.
The Bill also makes it easier to remove someone to another safe country while their asylum claim is being processed and enables us to recover taxpayers’ money from lawyers where their unreasonable behaviour wastes the courts’ and other parties’ resources.
Will the Home Secretary give way?
No, I will not give way. I have taken many interventions.
We are also closing the loophole that has prevented the defence of some immigration decisions on the ground of national security.
I am resolute that we must fix a terrible injustice suffered by the Windrush generation and others who were denied British citizenship unfairly—
At the hands of the Conservative party.
By successive Governments, if the hon. Gentleman had read the Wendy Williams report about Windrush. I have already overhauled the Windrush compensation scheme. I urge colleagues across the House to help us encourage people to come forward. What happened to them must never be repeated. That also means fixing our outdated nationality laws. The Bill gives the Home Secretary power to grant British citizenship to people who would have become British citizens if not for unfairness and exceptional circumstances beyond their control. For example, in one case, an individual was refused citizenship due to an absence from the UK on a given day, despite many years of previous residence. Of course it was not his fault.
The Bill provides further flexibility to waive residency requirements to help members of the Windrush generation and others acquire British citizenship more quickly. That will also mean that children unfairly denied British overseas territory citizenship can finally acquire citizenship here. That was one of the anomalies that came out in the Windrush scandal.
Our laws must be clearer and easier to understand. The “Windrush Lessons Learned Review” by Wendy Williams also said that immigration and nationality law is complex. The Bill gives the Home Secretary the power to simplify and consolidate immigration law so that we can address many of the citizenship anomalies that have existed for too long—for decades, in fact.
The British people are generous and compassionate. As I said to the hon. Member for Rhondda earlier, they give billions of pounds every year in overseas aid to provide support in countries around the world, to empower countries and communities and to invest in many economies. The British public also embrace those in genuine need and want people to succeed. They also want a system that is fair and firm—fair to the British people and to those in genuine need, but firm against the criminals and those who exploit our generosity by gaming the system.
The Bill is critical to delivering that new fair but firm system. It is also central to our new plan for immigration. It goes a long way to addressing decades of failure and challenges, in the law and illegal migration and in immigration courts and tribunals, in the way in which I have just reflected upon. The Windrush scandal has shone a spotlight on many of the anomalies that have existed when it comes to citizenship. We will change those areas, with secure borders and rules that will be easy to understand. That is part of the cumulative end-to-end change that we seek to introduce.
We want to slam the door on foreign criminals, put organised crime gangs out of business, and of course give help and support to those in genuine need. Everyone who plays by the rules will encounter a new system—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the Home Secretary, but does the hon. Lady have an actual point of order?
As the Home Secretary is very eloquently saying, this is an incredibly important piece of legislation, and the lack of opportunity to hold the Government to account on it is a source of real concern. Can she invite—
Order. That is not a point of order. We are starting a debate, the purpose of which is to allow this House to hold the Government to account. We will be doing so until 10 o’clock tonight, and then again tomorrow. That is not a point of order, and the hon. Lady knows that.
This is an important Bill, and it is right that we have given the House plenty of time to debate it.
We are seeking to achieve systematic, end-to-end reform of this system, but it is complex—it is absolutely complicated. Throughout this debate and in Committee, I hope all hon. Members will reflect on some of the points that have been made by Government Members. Over decades, we have found anomalies in our system. I have mentioned Windrush, tribunals and many of the processes that we want to streamline, which will of course deal with efficiency and productivity in case management.
Fundamentally, the new system will be fair to those who need our help and support. Everyone who plays by the rules will encounter a new system that is fair but firm. As representatives of the British people, we will be finally in control of many of these highly challenging issues that many successive Governments have sought to address in different ways, but now this Government are committed to fixing the broken system.
Order. Before I call the shadow Home Secretary—[Interruption.] I would be obliged if the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) did not speak loudly while I am on my feet. He can heckle other people, but he should not be heckling the Chair. I draw to the House’s attention the fact that there is obviously a very large list of people who wish to take part in this important debate. Therefore, there will be an initial time limit of four minutes, which will be reduced to three minutes at some point, depending on how fast we proceed.
I beg to move,
That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Nationality and Borders Bill, notwithstanding the need to address the increasing number of dangerous boat crossings in the English Channel, because the Bill breaches the 1951 Refugee Convention, does not address the Government’s failure since 2010 to competently process asylum applications which has resulted in a backlog of cases and increased costs to the taxpayer, fails to deal with the serious and organised crime groups who are profiteering from human trafficking and modern slavery, does not address the failure to replace the Dublin III regulations to return refugees to safe countries, fails to re-establish safe routes and help unaccompanied child refugees, and fails to deliver a workable agreement with France to address the issue of boat crossings.
We on these Benches will be opposing this Bill. It is a Bill that is wrong and will make the dangerous situation in the English channel worse. We on these Benches do not want to see people risking their lives making a sea crossing in some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, often in boats that are unfit for purpose, but the measures proposed will not address that.
By judging claims on the type of journey people make, Ministers will create
“a discriminatory two-tiered approach to asylum”.
Those are not my words but the words of the United Nations Refugee Agency. That must be our starting point today. Any proposals—I will come to some in a moment—to address this profoundly serious issue must be compliant with the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees.
We should in this House remember the circumstances in which that convention was created. Drafting began in 1946, after the end of the second world war, as the full horrors perpetrated in that conflict had been brought into public view. It was a noble ideal for nations to work together to prevent such awful things from happening again. Countries came together to ensure that, across the world, we would offer a new protection to those who suffered persecution. Countries would not look the other way when there was systematic persecution in other parts of the world. We all bore a responsibility in our common humanity to help others.
The convention was signed under the post-war Labour Government in July 1951, but the document became one of the foundation stones upon which all post-war British Governments stood—a matter of pride to our country and a sign of the values we stand for around the world. It sent a clear signal that Britain was a force for good and was setting a strong moral example that gave it the authority to argue that other countries take responsibility as well. It is to this Government’s shame that they stand outside that fine British tradition. Seventy years after the 1951 convention was signed, this Government have decided to renege on its commitments. [Interruption.] I hear what the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), the Minister for immigration compliance, says, but do not take my word for it. This is what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says about the proposals:
“The international refugee protection system, underpinned by the 1951 Convention, has withstood the test of time and it remains a collective responsibility to uphold and safeguard it. If States, like the UK, that receive a comparatively small fraction of the world’s asylum-seekers and refugees appear poised to renege on their commitments, the system is weakened globally and the role and influence of the UK would be severely impacted. UNHCR is concerned that the Plan, if implemented as it stands, will undermine the 1951 Convention and international protection system, not just in the UK, but globally.”
If the Minister doubts that, this is what the United Nations Refugee Agency had to say ahead of this Second Reading debate:
“Plans to create a new lower class of refugees are discriminatory, breach commitments in the Refugee Convention and should be dropped”.
They are breaching commitments in the refugee convention that a past British Government who truly believed in a global Britain had signed.
In fact, the UN Refugee Agency said the two-tier approach is:
“a recipe for human suffering, social problems, inefficiency and greater cost to the taxpayer.”
Frankly, it is a dangerous and ill-thought-out proposal with profound consequences.
Given that there seems to be unanimity that the Bill should be interpreted in the light of the refugee convention and apparently the Government intention is to follow the refugee convention, surely there could be no possible objection to an interpretation clause in the Bill. We can all work together to put that in there to ensure that all the provisions follow refugee case law and the refugee convention as it is.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In reality, this is a Bill based on an immigration plan that is harmful. Just listen to the story of Waheed Arian, now an NHS doctor who escaped the Taliban in Afghanistan as a child. These are his words:
“When I arrived alone in London, a bewildered 15-year-old with nothing to my name but $100 and my hopes and dreams, I had no idea I’d end up two decades later working as an NHS doctor fighting Covid-19 on the frontline in A&E. As a former child refugee from Afghanistan, under the UK government’s so-called New Plan for Immigration, it is doubtful I would be here at all.”
“It is doubtful I would be here at all.”
We also know the serious concerns that have been raised by campaigners across the LGBT+ community about the Bill. The way it is so badly drafted risks us turning our back on people fleeing persecution. This is particularly chilling when we know the scale of the dangers faced by so many LGBT+ people across the world, including state-sanctioned persecution. The plan is wrong and it is wrong-headed.
If the right hon. Gentleman had listened to the Home Secretary, he would realise we are not on about Waheed. We are not on about stopping him from achieving what he wants to do. We are on about people who are coming here through safe routes, often adults using the child route, and stopping them from abusing that system. If the right hon. Gentleman had actually listened to my right hon. Friend, he would have probably picked that up.
With the greatest respect, if the hon. Gentleman had listened to me, he would realise they were not my words I was quoting—it was Waheed Arian himself I was quoting.
The Government say that the asylum system is broken. I totally agree. And it is the Conservative Government who have broken it over the past 11 years. Under this Conservative Government, the asylum processing system has imploded. Their own incompetence, removing targets from the system and failing to run it properly, has completely undermined it.
The right hon. Gentleman says it has imploded under the Conservative Government. I remind him that after his party had been in power for 10 years, there was a backlog of nearly 500,000 asylum cases and 120,000 of them were put in the controlled archive because they were unable to trace them.
If the hon. Member wants to hear about statistics, try these: the share of applications that received an initial decision within six months fell from 87% in 2014 to 20% in 2019. That is the scale of the failure of this Government. At the end of March 2021, over 66,000 were waiting for an outcome on their initial claim. Seventy-five per cent. of them—over 50,000—have been waiting over six months. New research from the Refugee Council shows that, according to the most recent data available, over 33,000 people have been waiting for over a year. I have been intervened on about the last Labour Government, but that represents a tenfold increase in the past decade—tenfold. It is failure heaped upon failure, and not only that: the initial decision making is so poorly judged that around 40% of initial decisions are overturned: so four in every 10 decisions are wrong. Yes, this process is broken and, frankly, it is getting even worse.
I note the right hon. Gentleman has made the point about initial decisions. Does he not recognise that one of the problems has been the ability for people to bring extra evidence after that decision has been made, so that the court is often looking at a case that is different from the one on which the initial decision was made?
I will come to that point in a moment because I have deep concerns about that. The right hon. Lady passed, as has already been pointed out, the legislation on modern slavery, but it is also the case that victims often feel too traumatised to talk about their experience at an early stage, so this idea of giving such minimal weight to later evidence I find very concerning, particularly in the modern slavery context. I will come back to that in a moment because I know it is a matter of concern on the Conservative Benches as well as on these.
I do apologise to the right hon. Gentleman and he is very gracious in giving way, but can I just say to him that that comment about modern slavery—and he will hear that I have some concerns about the modern slavery aspects of this Bill—did not respond to the intervention that I made?
With great respect to the right hon. Lady, she was making the point about late filing of evidence, and I was making the point in response—I will come on to it in a moment, and I am quite happy to give way to her again when I do—that the way this Bill is framed, in terms of the direction to give very little weight to late evidence, is very concerning with respect to victims who are unable to talk about their trauma at an early stage in the proceedings. I will come back to that and I will be very happy to give way to her again when I do.
On asylum accommodation, the idea of sending people to offshore processing sites is dehumanising and unconscionable. As the UN Refugee Agency puts it,
“The UK should abandon plans to ‘externalise’ its refugee commitments, which would see it shift responsibility for protecting refugees on to states with less capacity and more refugees.”
Frankly, it is an attempt to distract from Government failure on the housing of those seeking asylum.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I agree with him about this point. Of course, Australia has undertaken offshore processing, and there are terrible stories, which shame Australia, about what has happened to some people in those places. Has he had any indication: where might these offshore places be where asylum applicants could be processed?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that. Unfortunately, I have had no such indication beyond leaks to the media, a fact which will probably not surprise him.
Last month, the High Court judgment on Napier barracks found inadequate health and safety conditions and a failure to screen victims of trafficking and other vulnerabilities. The Home Office continued to house people against the advice of Public Health England, endangering those in the accommodation, staff and the local community. It resulted in what the Court described as an “inevitable” covid outbreak in January 2021, with nearly 200 people testing positive for the virus. No wonder the independent chief inspector of borders and Her Majesty’s inspector of prisons published an emergency report that raised “serious safeguarding concerns”. On asylum accommodation, this Government have failed and failed dangerously.
The idea that this Bill helps those fleeing violence and persecution does not stand up to scrutiny. Let me take one example, because the former Prime Minister raised it a moment or two ago. The Bill says that evidence submitted late without good reason should be given only “minimal weight” by asylum judges. Asylum seekers have been required for the past 19 years to submit arguments and evidence at an early stage. Now it seems we are going to have a situation where judges are directed to have minimal regard to evidence being given late. But there are many reasons why refugees, and particularly victims of human trafficking, cannot provide evidence at an early stage, not least the fact it is difficult for survivors of trauma to talk about their experience immediately, including—and, indeed, especially—women and other survivors of sexual violence. That shows the real failure at the heart of this Bill. It fails victims of human trafficking, and it is a glaring missed opportunity to address the vile crime of people smuggling. Instead, the Government will turn their back on some of the most vulnerable people on Earth.
The Bill changes the law so that helping an asylum seeker will no longer need to be done “for gain” to attract criminal liability. That is what the Bill does, and it is a profound and dangerous change in the law. It could criminalise the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for saving people at sea, and it seems to take no account whatsoever of the international law of the sea, which requires ships’ captains to assist those who are in distress. Let us be frank about this. Had this measure been in place when Sir Nicholas Winton was rescuing hundreds of children from the holocaust on the Kindertransport, he would have risked being criminalised—[Interruption.] There is no point in Members shaking their heads, because this legislation risks bringing into the scope of the criminal law those who are helping people for humanitarian reasons.
The hon. Gentleman says that that is disgusting, but it is what is in the Bill. I suggest he takes it up with the Home Secretary. The Bill is wrong, it benefits nobody and it sends out the worst possible signal about the Government’s intentions.
Let me turn now to what the Government should be doing instead. First, we need legally binding targets for clearing asylum cases and proper resourcing for Border Force. The Government are failing, and they are not acting in the national interest. The system is hugely costly for the taxpayer, and it leaves people in the asylum system stuck in limbo, unable either to properly enter society and rebuild their lives or to be returned to a safe country. There is little wonder that performance has been so poor due to the cuts to Border Force.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. This might be me being naive, as I am quite new to the House, but is not the whole purpose of Second Reading to discuss the Bill so that we can go forward to the Committee stage where the Opposition can put forward their points, rather than voting against the whole of a Bill that would stop this broken system that they keep mentioning?
The Bill is wrong and it will not solve the problem. Let me just continue with the critique. The Government—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I have already given way to the hon. Lady.
The Government should seek to rebuild the system so that it is fair. Quick, effective decision making is in the best interests of everyone, and Ministers should be legislating for legally binding targets for processing asylum cases. We need a proper plan to deliver deals with international partners to tackle gangs, because the measures outlined in the Government’s plans completely fail in their own terms. The measures are all dependent on deals with international partners, both to stop criminal gangs operating on the French coast and to replace the Dublin III regulation allowing those registered in a “safe country” before they reached the UK to be returned after a failed claim.
The existing arrangements with France on stopping gangs exploiting people and putting them into boats in the English channel are clearly not working. The Minister for immigration compliance has talked about his joint operational plan. He said that he would be completely cutting this route and that he would be working at pace “in the coming days” to make that a reality. That was 11 months ago. The Government talk about safe countries, but Ministers have not signed any of the required deals with any of the European Union countries to return those whose claims have failed. The Government have shown a complete inability to deliver these deals, which risks leaving people stranded in the UK, unable to be returned and in limbo. Yes, there should be full life tariff sentences for human traffickers and tougher sentences on modern slavery. The problem is that under these plans the Government will weaken protections for victims of modern slavery—
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads clause 48 of the Bill, because he will discover in it a higher bar for people receiving support as victims of human trafficking. That is despite the fact that recent reports show that four out of five rejected trafficking claims are overturned on appeal. These reforms risk leaving greater numbers of victims without support and more gangmasters free to commit further crimes. Human trafficking and modern slavery are vile crimes and those responsible should face the harshest penalty. Yes, there should be a full-term life sentence for those convicted for human trafficking and increased sentences for perpetrators of modern slavery, but such measures will not be effective if we withdraw support from victims.
I come to the issue of safe routes for claiming asylum and helping unaccompanied children. Following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the resulting refugee crisis, the Government agreed to Lord Alf Dubs’ amendment to accept unaccompanied children to the UK. The initial pledge was understood to have committed to provide support to around 3,000 unaccompanied children, but the scheme closed with the number having been capped at 480. It was wrong to close the Dubs scheme after helping just a fraction of the number of children promised help. It has meant that under this Government the UK has looked the other way when unaccompanied children have faced dire consequences, including when the Moria refugee camp was ablaze last summer.
Worse still, clause 9 introduces a new requirement for the registration of a stateless child aged five to 17 as a British citizen or a British overseas territories citizen, and maintains existing requirements in relation to those aged 18 to 22. No wonder there is concern about leaving children stateless, which would run contrary to the UK’s obligations under the 1961 UN convention on the reduction of statelessness.
The shadow Home Secretary talks about the Dubs amendment and those 480 children. I remind the House that those children were already in safe European countries, and I remind the shadow Home Secretary that the United Kingdom currently has more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—more than 5,000—than any other country in Europe, including Greece and Italy. Finally, on the point about providing protection to those in need in war zones, the resettlement schemes that have operated here since 2015 have seen in excess of 25,000 people being directly resettled not from Europe, which is safe, but from war zones such as Syria. That is more than any other country in Europe. This Government’s record is a proud one and we stand by it.
Well, we will see how proud their record is in a moment when we go through it. Let me just say to the shadow Minister for Immigration Compliance—
I certainly stand corrected on that. The point is that there were local authorities that were willing to step up and help beyond that 480 and it was this Government’s absolute failure—[Interruption.] Including my local authority, yes, and I am very proud—
Absolute utter nonsense. I have visited the Syrian refugees in Torfaen, so I hope the Minister will take that comment back because it is utter nonsense.
The Government often talk about the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme—I just heard it from the Minister—and I of course pay tribute to local government, including my own local authority of Torfaen, for stepping up to help to deliver safe havens for those fleeing persecution. Those who have come to the country under that scheme have added to the diversity and richness of our communities. The Government have gone quiet on a 2019 commitment to resettle 5,000 further refugees at the conclusion of the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, and they still refuse to make proper commitments on the future of the scheme. Existing safe routes are very limited. The Minister stood up a moment ago to speak about statistics; well, in March 2021 the new UK resettlement scheme began, and in its first month it resettled a grand total of 25 refugees. The lack of safe and legal routes will lead people to continue to attempt dangerous routes to the UK.
The Home Secretary shakes her head, but in the 2019 report “Responding to irregular migration: A diplomatic route” the Foreign Affairs Committee warned of exactly that:
“A policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups.”
The Home Secretary should remember that because she was a member of the Committee at the time and her name is attached to the report.
While we are debating—or at least should be debating—a plan for refugees, we should cast our minds back to last week and the failure to restore the 0.7% commitment to international aid. The Department for International Development was tasked with delivering help to countries to tackle poverty and the drivers of people becoming displaced from their homes in the first place. The abolition of that Department was wrong and short-sighted. The work that was going on around the world to tackle the refugee crisis has been starved of funds, with programmes suddenly cut off. Our reputation around the world as a force for good has been damaged. The Government should restore the Department for International Development and restore spending to 0.7%.
The Bill is as wrong as it is ineffective. It will not tackle people smugglers, and it will not protect victims of human trafficking. It is, in reality, a continuation of this Government’s culture war. It is a culture war that led them to side with those booing the England men’s football team for taking the knee. Instead of supporting that brave stance against racism, the players were dismissed as taking part in “gesture politics” by the Home Secretary, and were told to stay out of politics altogether by other Conservative MPs. Last week, the Government refused to live up to their promises on international aid, and they ran away from their own failure to stand with football players against racism. This week, they promote more division with this Bill. As ever, they talk tough, but deliver nothing.
As it stands, the Bill is a charter for human trafficking. It is a missed opportunity that represents the worst of all worlds, lets evil criminals off the hook, and fails those who have been exploited. The cruel irony of this Government’s approach is that they are weak on taking action against criminal gangs, and brutal when it comes to orphan children from war zones. I ask all Members of the House to reject the Bill in the vote tomorrow.
To reiterate, I am sorry but we have to start with a time limit of four minutes, simply because so many Members wish to participate in the debate. I call Mrs Theresa May.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will try to get in as many points as I can in those four minutes. I thank the Home Secretary for holding prior discussions with me on the Bill and the Government’s approach. The Government are right to try to find a better way to differentiate between economic migrants and refugees. This is an international challenge: as I said to the United Nations in 2016, we need to revise international conventions on this issue, so that we can more clearly focus our help on those who are refugees. As we saw in 2015 with the significant movement of people into the European continent, many of whom were trying to get through to the UK, they were widely portrayed as all being refugees, but in fact the majority of them were economic migrants. We must find a way to differentiate between them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most compassionate thing we can do to help these people, is stop them getting in the boat in the first place?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why the work being done—I shall refer to this later—to increase the economic development of the countries that people are coming from, and to deal with the criminal gangs, is so important.
I have set out three principles, which I am pleased to say underpin the Bill. First, we must help to ensure that refugees claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. The current trend, where refugees reach a safe country and then press on with their journey, can only benefit criminal gangs and expose refugees to grave danger. The refugee convention does not state that refugees must claim asylum in the first safe country they come to. We were able to exercise that rule in the Dublin regulation as part of the European Union. Obviously that is not applicable to us now, and indeed the EU has since changed the Dublin regulation.
Secondly, we need to improve how we distinguish between refugees fleeing persecution and economic migrants, which will help to target support on those refugees who need it most, as well as encouraging people to support such a measure if they see that the people who are coming are genuinely refugees. Thirdly, we need a better approach to managing economic migration, which recognises that all countries have the right to control their borders. We must all commit to accepting the return of our own nationals when they have no right to remain elsewhere.
Sadly, as the Home Secretary said, the business of people trafficking has increased in recent years. To the criminal gangs, it does not matter whether they deal in drugs, weapons or desperate people—it is all the same; they want to make money. Breaking their business model is essential. That means stopping the routes available to them, but it also means catching and prosecuting them. That requires international co-operation. We have been very strong on international co-operation, and we must encourage more countries around the world to see this as an issue on which they should be working with us, and others.
I recognise that the Bill focuses on differentiating between those who came here legally and illegally, and I understand why the Government have gone down that route, but that in itself does not address the issue of better differentiating between refugees and economic migrants. I hope that the Government will give some thought to how they can work internationally to try to deal with that.
The concept that Britain could process asylum claims outside the UK came up when I was Home Secretary, and there was a lot of discussion on it in the European Union, but we did not go down that route because of practical concerns. It would not automatically remove the criminal gangs’ business model, because they would get people to the centre and still take those rejected by the centre and move them on across the Mediterranean, so there could be an increase in people being picked up and taken into slavery. There is also the problem of what we do with those people who are rejected for asylum but cannot be returned to their country of origin. The concept of allowing asylum to be granted outside the UK is also a major step, and it would have ramifications for any Royal Navy or Border Force vessel operating humanitarian missions in the Mediterranean, for example.
On seeking protection but entering illegally without a valid entry clearance becoming a new criminal offence, we must not send the message that somebody genuinely fleeing persecution whose only route out of that persecution is to the UK will automatically be seen as a criminal. I also echo the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith).
Does the right hon. Lady agree that part of the concern is about ensuring that the modern slavery provisions do not end up being drawn too tightly?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her intervention, because I am coming on to that point. I am sure that across the House we are sickened to know that some are abusing our world-leading modern slavery legislation in trafficking people into this country. We need to deal with the problem, but I have two concerns with the Bill. The first is about timing and the issue that the Secretary of State can require information to be provided within a specified period. It takes time for many victims of modern slavery to identify as a victim, let alone be able to put forward the evidence to establish that. I would like reassurance about how that power will be exercised.
Secondly, I would like an explanation about the change from needing reasonable grounds that a person may be a victim of modern slavery to reasonable grounds that a person is a victim of modern slavery. I know we need to toughen up to ensure that the law is not being abused, but again this relates to the degree of information that an individual may be able to provide at an early stage in consideration of their case.
I understand the complexity of the issues with which the Government are dealing in this area of policy. There always seems to be a need for a new immigration Bill because people are always trying to find loopholes that they can use to get here, so we must have legislation that not only strengthens the Government’s ability to deal with illegal immigration but continues to show that the UK is a country that welcomes those who are genuinely fleeing from persecution.
I am afraid that I regard this as a dreadful Bill, and the Refugee Council was absolutely right to characterise it as the “anti-refugee” Bill. There are eight welcome clauses on nationality, but thereafter what we see risks trampling international convention after international convention, and vulnerable children, stateless children and victims of trafficking will all pay a penalty. Nowhere is the retreat from international law, international co-operation and basic human decency more apparent than in the absolute trashing of the refugee convention as it approaches its 70th birthday. A convention that has saved and protected countless millions of people is being undermined by one of its first champion countries.
Refugees and asylum seekers—we have skirted over this so far—will be criminalised, stripped of their rights and offshored. That is true whether they are Uyghurs fleeing atrocities in China, Syrians fleeing war crimes or persecuted Christians seeking refuge here. The Bill does absolutely nothing to stop them getting in boats in France; what it does is punish them when they get here. That is morally reprehensible.
It is not just the Bill’s awful ends that justifies the Scottish National party refusing it a Second Reading and stopping it in its tracks but the means by which it seeks to pursue those ends. We are talking about a unilateral rewriting or reinterpretation of our obligations under international law. That is, once more, a hugely dangerous precedent to set. It will make our international partners query whether this country gives two hoots about international law and keeping its word.
Secondly, to put it directly, what we have here is a deliberate policy decision to inflict harm on people seeking sanctuary by criminalising them, splitting them from their family, forcing them into destitution, putting them in legal limbo and offshoring them. That is not just ineffective and dangerous, but morally outrageous.
Not only is the Bill the opposite of the right solution, but it wrongly identifies the problem that needs solving. The problem in the asylum system is simply down to the incompetent management of it by this Home Office and this Government. We live in a world in which 80 million people have been forcibly displaced, and 30 million of them are outside their country of origin and are therefore refugees. Four million of them are asylum seekers pursuing recognition as refugees. Some 86% of them are hosted in developing countries, 73% in neighbouring countries.
What we are asking of wealthy western countries barely scratches the surface of their share of responsibility. In European terms, what has been asked of the UK is very little at all. I applaud and support everything that has been achieved through the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme and other resettlement programmes, but none of it justifies what the Government propose today.
The Government regularly trot out that they have resettled more Syrian refugees than other European countries. In absolute terms that is true but, per head of population, neighbours such as Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland and Ireland have all resettled more. Yes, although the UK resettled a few thousand more Syrians than Germany and France, those two countries have offered sanctuary to more Syrians through their asylum systems by massive margins.
In 2019, the UK received around five applications for asylum per 10,000 people, compared with the European average of 14, putting the UK 17th in the table of member states, just behind Italy, Finland and Ireland. Similarly, the UK granted roughly two applications per 10,000 people, compared with the European average of 13, putting it 16th in the table. Yes, although by international standards the UK has a decent history of offering protection, let us not pretend that it has been bearing an unbearable burden that entitles it to rip up the refugee convention and start trying to pass refugees back up the chain to those that already do much more.
The real problem, as we have heard, is that the Home Office’s handling of asylum cases is abysmal. We have heard the extraordinary figures on how long it is taking, and it is not just the length of time it takes to make a decision but the number of decisions that it gets wrong. We are at record levels of successful appeals—it is almost 50:50.
It is not just statistics that cause grave concern but the regular stories of life inside the Home Office: impossible targets, a culture of fear, ill-treatment of staff, high staff turnover, a shortage of skilled asylum caseworkers and administrative chaos. Asylum decision making is a matter of life and death, and it seems clear to me that it should no longer be entrusted to the Home Office, a Department that has again shown itself to be unfit for that purpose. Such decisions should be removed from political interference and entrusted to an independent body, as they are in Canada. That would be a sensible approach.
What about democratic oversight?
Absolutely, as there is in Canada.
Members from all parties in this House, sitting on the Front Benches and the Back Benches, regularly speak up for some of the most oppressed people on the planet. We have seen brave interventions on Uyghurs fleeing atrocities in China. The plight of Syrians fleeing a decade-long conflict has been championed, and Christians around the world, including Christian converts, have numerous ambassadors in this Chamber, but we have hardly come to terms with what this Bill means for them.
This Bill prompts a question: why speak up against persecution abroad only to say, when they come knocking at our door seeking shelter, “You are not our responsibility. Go somewhere else”? France seems to be the popular answer among Conservative Members. What if France and the rest of Europe say the same thing? We would end up with the system of international protection of refugees breaking down, as the UNHCR points out.
If the Bill passes, that is exactly what it means. Prior to the Bill, we would have sheltered people fleeing persecution. The Bill expressly seeks to discourage them from coming here by making life miserable for those who do. Today, if a Uyghur, Syrian or persecuted Christian convert arrives in the UK to seek asylum, life will be far from plain sailing, precisely because of the outrageous waiting times, the dreadful asylum accommodation, the prohibition on work and the dreadful levels of financial support. They get here and, thanks to our amazing non-governmental organisations and charities, they slowly start to rebuild their lives.
But next year, if this Bill passes, for many of those Uyghurs, Syrians or persecuted Christian converts claiming asylum here, things will be infinitely bleaker, and that will be a deliberate policy choice of this Parliament. Arriving next year, the Uyghur, Syrian or persecuted Christian will be much more likely to be criminalised, regardless of arguments about whether they had come here directly or not.
Section 24 of the Immigration Act 1971 already punishes illegal entry by those without leave to enter. Sensibly, however, those who claim asylum on arrival are granted immigration bail, which does not count officially as entry. Clause 37 of the Bill changes all that. It would essentially criminalise the very act of arriving to claim asylum, because, as the explanatory notes acknowledge, the majority of asylum seekers will not have the ability to secure entry clearance. Despite the Home Secretary’s protestations last week, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) said, this criminal offence will apply to Uyghurs, Syrians, persecuted Christian converts and anybody else, and the penalty is up to four years in prison.
The next problem for the Uyghur, Syrian or persecuted Christian convert is that although they are absolutely obviously in need of international protection, this Government, in their wisdom, are not even going to consider their claim for protection for six months. The Government are trying to pretend that that is some sort of replication of the Dublin regulations that the UK was party to prior to Brexit, but of course it is not, because, as we have heard, there are no returns agreements with any remotely relevant country and little indication at this stage that there will be any time soon. Any such returns agreement would have to be carefully circumscribed so as to be consistent with the convention and to have carefully considered the circumstances of the individual, including any ties to the UK, such as family members here.
By contrast, the powers in the Bill will allow the Home Secretary to remove a Uyghur, persecuted Christian or Syrian to any country at all, even if there is no connection, and with very little by way of restriction. Today, the Uyghur, Syrian or persecuted Christian faces outrageous delays in asylum protection systems, and the Bill simply adds another six months.
Where will the Uyghur, Syrian or persecuted Christian be during that time—during that limbo—while the Home Office goes through the futile motions of seeking to remove them? Just now, for those who seek asylum we have a struggling, privatised, over-concentrated system of dispersed asylum accommodation. Numerous Committees have told the Home Office how it could be improved, only to be ignored. Under this Bill and this plan, that is not where the Home Secretary envisages the Syrian, the Uyghur or the persecuted Christian going. Instead, the grim future for these refugees appears under this Bill and this plan to be the disgraceful, disreputable open prison-like conditions that we have already witnessed at Napier or Penally.
Even worse, as we have heard, they may face being removed to an offshore centre to have their claim resolved. Here is the real asylum shopping: the British Government grubbing around to find a country to palm off their responsibilities on to. Let us think of the outrages and the lack of accountability we have seen in relation to immigration detention and the Napier open prison—the abuses that have been meted out there and the harm done. As we know from the Australian experiment, that will be as nothing compared to the hell that is likely to await at an offshore asylum facility. How on earth have we gone from having a Parliament where there was widespread support for time-limiting and restricting the use of detention, to imposing a form of it that is infinitely worse?
Having endured their limbo period, these three groups of refugees will finally have their case assessed by the Home Office. But instead of working to improve asylum decision making, the Bill seeks to make it harder for them to prove their case. It seeks to alter the long-established test set out in the refugee convention that the standard of proof required is a lower, but far from negligible, standard of real risk. That standard is clearly justified by the possible consequences of getting decisions wrong and the huge challenges of proving circumstances that happened thousands of miles away in a country the person has fled.
The Bill seeks to muddy the waters by applying a higher legal threshold. The claimant now has to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that they do belong to one of the protected convention groups and that they fear persecution based on that characteristic. That not only undermines the cautious approach in the convention, justified by the dangers that exist for asylum seekers, but pays no regard to just how difficult it is to prove events that happened in faraway countries.
In addition, by having two different standards of evidence in the same proceedings, it makes life harder for already struggling caseworkers. The judge or decision maker may be certain that the proselytising Christian convert will face the death penalty or torture on return, but now the “real possibility” that the claimant is such a proselytising Christian convert is not enough. If the judge is only 49% satisfied that the person is a proselytising Christian convert, the claim is going to be rejected, even though the risk of torture or death is absolutely certain if the decision maker has got that assessment wrong. I find that deeply troubling, and it is clearly inconsistent with the refugee convention.
Let us imagine that the persecuted Christian, the Syrian and the Uyghur have survived their limbo period and made it through the asylum system, and the Home Office refusal of their application has been overturned on appeal. Unbelievably, the harms inflicted on them by the Bill have barely started. On the contrary, the repugnant programme of disincentives is ramped up further, even after they navigate that system. Because they have stopped temporarily in a European country, they are to be treated as a second-class refugee. Regardless of what any Minister says, that is absolutely contrary to the refugee convention and, more importantly, it is simply disgraceful. It is not just nasty, but sickening—
Does my hon. Friend agree that on many occasions, particularly for those seeking asylum on the basis of their sexuality, those in the LGBT+ community are the most likely to be adversely impacted by this new legislation? Does he agree that more should be done to protect them and ensure that they can come here as a safe haven?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are all sorts of problems with provisions in the Bill that penalise late disclosure of information, which can very often be the case in modern slavery or LGBT cases, or even religious conversion cases.
Having established that these people are refugees—and the Government have had to recognise that—the system should allow them to rebuild their lives after the trauma of their persecution, their journeys and their asylum claim, but instead this Government still want to turn the screw. Instead of the stability and permanent residence refugees were once provided with, today they are given five years’ leave, with a review that is fairly light-touch, before settlement. But this Bill and the Government’s plan propose endless 30-month cycles of review and ongoing attempts to remove. Nobody can rebuild their lives in those circumstances—and I do not know how on earth the Home Office is going to cope with having to revisit every single asylum case every 30 months.
These refugees will not be entitled to public funds unless they are destitute. So if, say, the Christian convert finds some part-time, low-paid work—a big ask, given the language and cultural barriers, the enforced years out of work, and the trauma—there will be no universal credit to cover housing or income shortfalls, and if he or she was able to bring a child, there will be no support for that child. Their refugee family reunion rights will be diminished, according to the plan, meaning that they cannot be joined by a spouse or perhaps a child. The detail is not in the Bill, but that is what the plan suggests and the Bill enables.
That inevitably gives the Christian convert a choice: does the family stay apart or do other family members—often the women and children that the Home Secretary professes to be protecting—then have to follow and make their own dangerous journeys? Without the family, without state support and without stability, the Uyghur, the Syrian and the persecuted Christian convert have no hope of rebuilding their lives. That amounts not to a place of sanctuary, but to a place of punishment—and the Home Office has the audacity to claim that it is in their best interests. This is, in short, an outrageous way to treat refugees, and it is why the Bill is rightly being called the anti-refugee Bill.
There is so much that could be said about the undermining of efforts to support trafficking victims, the total absence from the Bill of protection for children, and the undermining of rights of stateless children. We need to know what the placeholder clauses will give rise to. We do not even have the chance to debate them here on Second Reading, and there are six or seven of them. The whole of the dentistry profession is up in arms at the suggestion that the discredited and unethical dental X-rays system could return as an inaccurate method of assessing age.
Just like in any other European country.
Well, the dentistry profession and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees say that it is not accurate and it is entirely unethical.
The Home Secretary is also making it harder to identify victims of modern slavery and cutting their recovery period to the minimum allowed in international law.
There is so much that should be in the Bill that is not. I mention just one thing: the failure to end the disgracefully painful 10-year route to settlement that many essentially British kids face and the outrageous fees that others are charged for registering their entitlement to British citizenship. When will that finally be done? This is an abysmal and, indeed, shameful Bill. It does not remotely deserve a Second Reading.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and the support that I have received—a research capacity in my office, relating to my work on asylum seekers, refugees and migrants—from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project.
When discussing immigration, asylum and our borders, there is a real problem with language and tone. I tried for 18 months to get that tone right, not always successfully, I will admit—although, having listened to the shadow Home Secretary, there was apparently much that I did not do successfully. But I always remembered that behind every visa application, every asylum claim and every journey to the shores of the UK there is a personal story—an individual. Meeting people in detention centres—Syrian refugees who came here fleeing war or young people trying to regularise their status in order to complete their education—was both the toughest and the most rewarding part of the job.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s reiterated commitment to a firm but fair immigration system. There can be no question but that the issue of small boats making perilous crossings of the busiest shipping lane in the world is a challenging one. I have many constituents who are concerned about the crossings. In her opening remarks, my right hon. Friend reminded us all that this is a trade in human misery. She is right in her determination to crack down on that evil trade, but we need to find practical and sustainable ways to do so.
My right hon. Friend will know as well as I do that once a craft has taken to the waters of the English channel, it is not only difficult to stop but potentially puts lives at risk, not only of asylum seekers but of our Border Force personnel. Small boat crossings are not a problem that will be solved on the water. She highlighted the use of guns and violence. That of course could be turned on our own Border Force mid-channel. I worry for their safety if attempts are made to turn boats around on the water.
I want to focus on the issue of support for those who seek to use safe and legal routes to claim asylum here. Britain has a proud history of providing a safe haven for those fleeing persecution. In particular, I draw attention to the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, as highlighted earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). She has spoken about it already, but it deliberately selected the most vulnerable, the most in need, and the Home Secretary is right to look at making its successor programme less geographically specific. However, we have an important responsibility to resettle adequate numbers. That will be challenging to meet.
We have to be fair to those seeking asylum and fair to the taxpayer. I was pleased to hear the borders Minister say in a Westminster Hall debate recently that there is to be a dramatic uplift in the number of those employed by the Home Office to process asylum claims. That is good news, in particular given the scale of the current backlog, but it is essential for the system to be relatively rapid, and I worry about building in a six-month delay at the start of the process for those who might have travelled through a safe third country. Currently, there is no mechanism to return them, and it will be extremely challenging to find appropriate accommodation for those individuals.
There is of course discussion of reception centres, but the proposals to establish those are not yet clear. We do not know if that will involve the housing in those communities of women and children. I gently direct the attention of Ministers to their responsibility under the Children Act 1989. It is crucial that when we do this, we get it right, and that we treat people humanely. It is obvious that local authorities such as Kent, Croydon and Glasgow are already under extreme stretch. I am worried that the new plan for immigration might place further burdens on them. These are long-standing problems and, therefore, sustainable solutions are needed. I know that being pragmatic is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but it is essential.
I am grateful to be able to follow the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who has worked hard on this issue.
There should be widespread agreement that the UK should do its bit to support those fleeing persecution and torture, that the system should be fair and not be undermined, that there should be a crackdown on the criminal gangs who exploit people’s misery and desperation, and that we should prevent the dangerous journeys across the channel in unsafe boats in which lives are put at risk. That includes encouraging asylum much earlier. In this House, we have debated many different ways to tackle those problems in a calm and common-sense way that avoids stoking division or promoting hostility against those who are most vulnerable, because we know where that leads. However, that is one of the things that troubles me about the debate and the approach Ministers are taking.
I also think that the Bill is counterproductive. It is likely to attract more people into the UK asylum system and drive more people into the arms of criminal gangs. The caseload, the backlog, is not a reflection of an increase in applications. In fact, those have stayed at about 30,000 a year—with a drop recently, during the pandemic—but the number of initial decisions made dropped 27% between 2015 and before the pandemic.
The Bill will make that worse, because there is no serious return agreement to replace the Dublin agreement for people who have travelled through a third country. Under the provisions of the Bill, asylum seekers who have travelled through third countries will have to wait in the system for six months. Those whose claims are unfounded will not be assessed or be returned, and those whose claims are justified and who need support will not be able to get on with their lives, to start working and rebuilding their lives here. Moreover, instead they will be waiting, dependent on the support of the Home Office, dependent on making the system more costly for the taxpayer.
Rightly, the Government say that we should prevent dangerous routes, but the Government have cut the alternative safe legal routes. The resettlement scheme has been halted, with no commitment for how many people will be supported.
It has not halted.
I will give way to the Minister if he wants to tell me how many places will be included in the resettlement scheme when it restarts.
It never stopped. When we met the 20,000 commitment in February this year, the UK resettlement scheme continued. Obviously making a precise numerical commitment is difficult, given the coronavirus circumstances, but it has never stopped; it continues to this day.
Everybody understands the pressures of the coronavirus crisis, but what we need is a commitment to the number of places. The UK has been resettling approximately 5,000 a year over the past few years as a result of cross-party consensus to support Syrian refugees, but we have not yet heard a commitment. Will it be 5,000? Will it be 10,000? What will the support be from the Government to ensure that the resettlement scheme continues?
The Dubs scheme has been cancelled, even though we know the need for support for those who are most vulnerable, and the Dublin family reunion system has not been replaced. Safe Passage, which works with young people in need of family reunion, said that last year, under the Dublin scheme, all the young people it worked with on family reunion went through the legal system; they did not try to go with people traffickers or people smugglers through a dangerous route. This year, however, under the new system, a quarter of the children and young people it has worked with had given up in frustration, sought to try illegal routes and ended up in the hands of people smugglers or people traffickers as a result. Those are the dangers that we face: if there are not safe legal routes for family reunion, we end up with more people driven into the hands of dangerous criminal gangs.
Clause 26, on offshore processing, is perhaps most troubling of all. The Government floated a range of impossible proposals: sending asylum seekers to be processed on Ascension Island or disused oil platforms or, most recently, sending them to Rwanda. Of course those proposals are impossible, but it is deeply troubling that the Minister even thinks that it is okay for them to be floated and for him not to deny them. We heard from Australia about how its offshore processing simply did not work in the end. It stopped doing it in 2014 because there were too many humanitarian and practical problems and it was costing approximately 1 billion Australian dollars a year to accommodate just 350 people.
This is not an answer. It is deeply shameful and undermines our international reputation. We need France, Spain, Italy, Greece and countries across the world to work together, but for that we need to show proper international leadership and not undermine our reputation.
When this country voted to take back control, clearly it had immigration in mind. As we all know—many of us deal with a lot of casework on it—this is an extremely complex and difficult area. Over the years, I have always felt that the Home Office has never got on top of the correspondence; sometimes these things go on for years and years. If, when the Bill is passed, we have a more efficient system for dealing with cases more quickly, I think we will all welcome it.
When we took back control, it seemed to me that it was about us determining our priorities as a country. That may mean turning the tap off in times of high unemployment and turning it on in times of high growth. At the moment, it looks as if we will probably have a labour shortage and may well need people with skills in certain areas to come in and keep a fast-recovering British economy going.
My constituents get very upset, however, when they watch television and see reports of people arriving on boats—something like 8,000. They think, “Can’t the Government do more?” We all know the problems of trying to deal with small boats in the channel. We have tried to co-operate with the French, who I understand are doing their best to stop the trade, but when people are arriving illegally daily and then, when we finally put them on a plane back to the country whence they arrived, human rights lawyers get involved, clearly we have a system that is not functional and is going to drive some of our constituents nuts.
In so far as the Bill gives us a vehicle for starting to deal with that, I think it can be welcomed. Whether the whole balance is right, I do not know, but as it goes through Committee there will be opportunities to improve it. It is vital that the Government try to break up the criminal gangs and stop this trade, which is dangerous and profitable to some.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) is absolutely right that most people who are economic migrants come through two, three or four safe countries; maybe France is such a terrible place that the Government, tax rates and sunshine that we have in the United Kingdom and the English language are a great draw. The reality is that, as a responsible neighbour to some of the EU states, we have to take some of the refugees that the Italians, Greeks and Spanish get because of their proximity to north Africa and the middle east, and it would perhaps be better to do that in a planned and organised way than to allow illegal crossings of the channel. This is a complex area. I welcome the fact that the Government have introduced this Bill. One of the first Bills on which I did an all-night Committee sitting was the Immigration Bill introduced by the Blair Government in 1998. This really is a little bit like putting fingers in the dam to try to stop changes as they occur over a period of time. It is a constant battle that both the Labour party and the Conservative party have always wrestled with, and, as we have signed up to various human rights legislation, it has become even more complex.
I welcome the Bill and I welcome the opportunity to try to deal with this very important issue. My constituents will want to see the end of the rubber boats turning up in Sussex and Kent and perhaps a more streamlined and efficient system for dealing with these very important and complex problems. Nobody in the world has all the answers, but I am sure that this Government are trying their best to get to where they want to be, which is to produce a fair and equitable system.
This Bill on such an important issue to my constituents and to the country is sadly a flawed piece of legislation that will undermine our humanitarian obligations and foster a punitive environment for asylum seekers and refugees, some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Moreover, as we heard from the Home Secretary when she opened the debate, it perpetuates the myth that the UK is overwhelmed by asylum seekers and refugees to fit the Government’s political agenda. It is strong on populist rhetoric and headline-catching gimmicks, but weak on delivery.
The reality and the facts tell a very different story. In total, the UK receives a much lower number of asylum applications than other comparable countries in Europe. In 2020, the UK received 29,456 asylum applications, whereas France received more than 95,000 claims. This Bill is being brought forward because the Government have broken our asylum and refugee system through chronic underfunding and mismanagement over the 11 years that they have been in charge. It is a fact that, in March 2021, there were more than 66,000 people—the highest number in a decade—waiting for an initial decision from the Home Office. It is also a fact that the number of people waiting for over a year has increased tenfold since 2010, from 3,588 to 33,016 in 2020. Unfortunately, the proposals in the Bill will just increase the delays and the backlog.
Clause 37, which proposes to judge an asylum seeker’s claim based on the journey they have made, breaches article 31 of the refugee convention and will make journeys even more dangerous; it will push refugees further into the control of trafficking gangs. As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, I am particularly worried about the lack of safe and legal routes for immigration, particularly in the case of family reunion. For example, let us look at the widely acclaimed Dubs scheme, which has helped just 480 unaccompanied children when the expectation was that it could help up to 3,000. The Government have claimed that local authorities will not take more children, but I doubt that. In Hull, we have always stepped up. We are a city of sanctuary, proud of welcoming some of the world’s most vulnerable people. We have played our part in the Gateway programme since 2006 and the Syrian refugee resettlement programme. However, our pride in this is matched by concern that other local authorities are not doing their fair share. Hull has seen massive cuts to its budget throughout the years of austerity, far more than Tory councils that take no or very few asylum seekers and refugees. The distribution of asylum seekers must be fairer and manageable.
The current system means that this Conservative Government, often at very short notice, with no consultation, can unilaterally increase numbers in a council area with little regard to local resources, the suitability of accommodation or the pressures of the pandemic. While some councils are simply allowed to opt out, other councils that engage in a spirit of civic responsibility get treated shabbily by Ministers, which is both wrong and unfair.
Finally, I turn to the issue of trafficking. I am particularly concerned about criminals who traffic women for prostitution. Evidence obtained by the all-party group on prostitution and the global sex trade revealed that the UK sex trade is dominated by serious organised crime, exploiting predominantly non-UK national women and trafficking them around networks of so-called pop-up brothels and hotel rooms to be raped time and time again. Evidence suggests that Romanian women are heavily represented in brothels across Britain. The suffering inflicted on the minds and bodies of these women can scarcely be imagined. Perpetrators face low risks for high profits and this Bill will not bust the business model, as the Home Secretary claims, nor will it support the women who have been trafficked.
I rise to speak in broad support of the Bill, which offers a comprehensive reform of an asylum system that is broken and dysfunctional in part.
It is clear that a system is needed that is fair to those in genuine need but firmly against those who break the rules and the criminal gangs who seek to exploit some of the world’s most vulnerable and desperate people. Access to the UK’s asylum system should be based on need, not the ability to pay for people smugglers. All too often, it is they who gain, not the individuals who are being trafficked.
My constituents have been rightly enraged by the images of abandoned boats on the south coast and they have not been backwards in making their demands for change. They do not want to pull up the drawbridge, but they expect that we should have a system that cares for those in need and which exercises genuine control over who enters the country and in what circumstance. Mine is a community of strong ties, which has welcomed families from afar with open arms, but it also a community that, frankly, has been shocked to find it would appear that we do not have control over who enters and leaves our country, so I applaud my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s determination to improve the UK’s position.
Imagine, for a moment, the lived experience of some of the people arriving on the UK’s shores by boat—a boat not fit for purpose and overpacked with families with a bursting need to leave their homes. Such people sold most of what they owned to pay for a journey that is likely to be illegal from beginning to end and have paid what money they have gathered to criminals who care not a jot for their safety or whether they make their end destination. These are people who are drip-fed stories of a land of milk and honey on these shores by gangs who want to extort as much money as possible from them by making the journey longer, by encouraging them to travel through safe countries to the UK. The gangs do not care about their charges; they care about their wallets. This is a system that must be reformed and the most valuable tool to do that is to bear down on those who enable it: the vile criminal gangs at its heart.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s determination on that aspect of the Bill in particular, but I would also welcome the Government giving some consideration to strengthening an area linked to that—that is, joining up the powers that they might employ to gather information from across different silos, such as law enforcement, the private sector and the public sector. We know that these gangs are linked to lots of different types of criminal activity, whether it is money laundering, human slavery or even common scams, so we need to break down those silos to work more effectively and tackle them.
I also welcome that the Government have been clear that we stand by our moral and legal obligations to help innocent people fleeing cruelty around the world. This is rightly the cornerstone of our immigration policy. Continuing the resettlement of genuine refugees, family reunion and improving the reception processing system are welcome measures.
I would also argue that there is another side to this that needs watching: if we choose not to reform the system now, we risk stoking up outrage and fear on our shores. I have already seen in my constituency some of the effects of this. We have had hateful right-wing propaganda distributed on the streets using some of the imagery from the south coast. Our cenotaph in Barrow was recently defaced, and we have had a few—very few, thankfully—isolated incidents of racism on our streets. The people responsible are the exception and the fringe, but we must be in no doubt that by tackling this issue fairly, we remove some of the tinder that could light a dangerous fire at home.
I broadly welcome the measures in the Bill. It is beyond time to reform our broken asylum system and replace it with one that is fair and offers a hand up for those in genuine need and targets those who seek to exploit some of the most vulnerable in the world.
Let me start by saying that I categorically reject this Bill and its proposers. The UK has a long and proud history of welcoming those fleeing war and persecution and providing sanctuary to some of the most vulnerable people in the world. The Bill would end that forever. It would not just turn away people seeking safety in the UK, but would treat them as criminals.
The most damning assessment of the Bill has come from the UN Refugee Agency itself. The UNHCR has warned that the Government’s proposals could cause great suffering, and could undermine the 1951 refugee convention and the international protection system. The Government are fond of talking about the broken asylum system, but they fail to acknowledge that it is they who have broken it with a decade of mismanagement. Delays in the system have reached disgraceful levels. The Refugee Council recently reported that the number of asylum seekers who had waited more than a year for an initial decision had increased tenfold since the Conservatives had come to power. Even when the decisions are made, the number overturned on appeal has consistently risen over the past decade. The Bill does not tackle that. It will increase delays, it will add to the backlog of asylum claims, and it does nothing to address the culture of disbelief in the Home Office.
The Government are keen to emphasise their commitment to safe and legal routes for vulnerable children and adults to reach sanctuary in the UK, but there are no such commitments in the Bill. We urgently need a renewed effort on refugee resettlement and family reunion. Detention Action recently summarised the position, saying that
“while the Bill fails to deal with the real problems that exist in the system, it pretends that the problems lie elsewhere and proposes a host of regressive, authoritarian & discriminatory policies that will cause deep harm to our society.”
While abdicating their responsibility to provide sanctuary for the world’s most vulnerable, the Government are simultaneously cutting international aid, which will inevitably drive up the number of refugees. The combination of those two actions will have a devastating impact on vulnerable people and refugees around the world.
Let me end my speech by reminding the Government that this legislation was an opportunity to overhaul our asylum system, and to embed fairness and compassion in the Home Office. Instead, the Government have chosen to pursue a deeply hostile and unpleasant attack on those who flee conflict and persecution and have sought a safe home in our country. I for one will never be able to support that, and I hope that my colleagues on both sides of the House will stand up against this dangerous and malicious legislation.
The United Kingdom has always been a generous, open and welcoming country. We help some of the most vulnerable people in the world to settle and make their lives here. We welcome migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from around the world, and we will continue to do so: nothing in the Bill will change that.
People who enter the country legally will continue to be able to claim asylum here. We will continue to prioritise helping the most vulnerable: the elderly, children, and the poorest—those who are unable to travel hundreds of miles or to pay people smugglers, like the 25,000 people who have come here through our resettlement programme in the last six years. We have resettled more people through that programme than any other country in Europe.
People in genuine need deserve an asylum system that functions properly, supports them through the process, and makes a decision quickly. Perpetuating the current system is not fair to them. Nor do we want to continue with the system that is being exploited by people smugglers who callously treat human beings as if they were cargo, and sometimes not even as well as that. The Bill will introduce life sentences for those found guilty of people smuggling. It will give Border Force additional powers to search, seize and divert vessels carrying people illegally, and it will provide an incentive for people to use safe and legal routes to claim asylum in the UK. This combination of measures will disrupt and undermine the business model of people smugglers.
It is important that we are able to keep all our citizens, our constituents, safe. There are currently 10,000 foreign national offenders outside prison in this country whom we need to deport. Some are guilty of the most hideous crimes. They have no right to be here, but time after time Labour Members have come here to Parliament to plead for their rights. I am more interested in the rights of their victims. That is why I support the measures in the Bill that will end repeated, last-minute and vexatious legal challenges to deportation, expand the early removal scheme for removing foreign offenders from the UK as early as possible, and increase the sentence for breaching a deportation order from six months to five years.
This Bill will deliver an asylum system that continues to prioritise the most vulnerable, immediate indefinite leave to remain for refugees who are resettled through safe and legal routes, tougher sentences for people smugglers, and tougher sentences for foreign national offenders who try to come back to our country when they have no right to do so. That is what I am voting for. My question to Opposition Members is: will they?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this debate.
History is going to judge our Parliament and our Government harshly for introducing this piece of legislation at a time when there are unprecedented numbers of refugees around the world—the total figure globally is about 80 million. They are fleeing from war, poverty, injustice, human rights abuses and environmental disasters, and they are living in refugee camps in enormous numbers —in Bangladesh, where there are 1 million Rohingya people, and in Jordan, Lebanon and other countries across the middle east, including Libya. Those conditions are created by unfair trade and the arms that we sell, which bring about the wars that bring about the refugee flows. The number of refugees is likely to rise.
At a time when country after country is closing its borders to refugees, who are stuck for decades in refugee camps, our Government are joining the throng who stand against refugees, rather than for them. Instead of patting ourselves on the back for our historical good work in supporting refugees from some countries, we should recognise what is happening at the present time.
I took the opportunity to visit the refugee camp in Calais in 2015, for which the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, described me as preferring to spend a weekend hanging round with a “bunch of migrants”. I found poor and desperate people who had walked all across Europe to try to get to a place of safety. They were frightened of gangs in the camps, the police and fascist gangs, and they wanted to get to this country, where they hoped they would be better treated.
Under this piece of legislation, the Government will make the task of anyone trying to into Britain much more difficult. The Bill will also create two tiers of asylum seekers: those who come through a moderately legitimate route by arriving in a port of entry and applying, and those who come out of desperation on leaking dinghies.
So what are we doing? Are we looking after the refugees or accusing them of wrongdoing for trying to get to a place of safety, and then condemning those who try to save them so that seafarers around the world who pluck refugees from the sea will be accused of illegally abetting migration to this country? It is a terrible situation. Ten days ago, a Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat took a group of people on a dinghy into a north Kent harbour to give them a place of safety. Are the Government going to prosecute the RNLI for saving life at sea? That would be contrary to the law of the sea, which requires it to save such lives.
I also ask the Government to look at the conditions in which refugees have to survive in this country, such as the disgusting conditions at Napier barracks, and at the number of refugees sleeping on our streets and begging to try to survive. Just think for a moment of what it is like to be a refugee trying to make a contribution to our world, and being criminalised in the process. We rely on refugees in hospitals, as doctors, as engineers, as teachers, as technicians and in so many other jobs in our society. Instead of criminalising people who try to get to a place of safety, can we not have a more humane approach and use the opportunity of this legislation to send a message of decency, humanity and responsibility towards the world as a whole?
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), although, ironically, his views on issues such as those included within the scope of this Bill are the main reason I find myself in this House today.
Since 1994, every single year the UK has seen positive net migration. From 2004, when several new states became members of the EU, net migration dropped below 200,000 only once. The trend is continually up and the most recent figures show that 700,000 migrants arrived in the UK in the year ending March 2020. To put that into perspective, that number is five times the size of Blackpool. This is simply unsustainable.
For the past 50 years, the Conservative manifesto has always referenced controlling immigration. Immigration puts pressure on our schools, the NHS and housing, while also challenging our identity and values when it is not properly controlled and when new arrivals do not integrate within their new communities. The British people can see this and understand this, and they have demanded action for at least the past two decades.
The vote to leave the EU was, among other things, a vote to take back control of our borders and to control immigration. Of course, that is not to say that immigration does not bring benefits to the UK, but the over-supply of low-skilled labour has had severe consequences, suppressing wages and reducing the number of entry-level jobs available. I am so pleased we have a Home Secretary who is willing to discuss these issues and face up to the problems that large-scale immigration is causing. Successive Governments have been far too reluctant to do so, perhaps through fear of facing the cancel culture of the woke brigade.
The element that is most emotive and that angers my constituents more than any other is illegal immigration—specifically, the thousands of small boats arriving on the south coast. It is high time this Bill was brought forward to tackle the scourge of illegal immigration, and I strongly welcome the measures outlined within it. Giving our Border Force additional powers to turn around boats crossing the channel, making it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission and introducing life sentences for people smugglers will all reduce the number of migrants making the unnecessary and illegal crossing in small boats.
However, some will still make the perilous journey. The task of processing asylum claims must be made quicker and, for those who are rejected, we must be far more robust in deporting them from the UK. Over the past 15 years, around three quarters of applicants who were refused asylum have lodged an appeal. Their vexatious and often last-minute appeals—submitted and encouraged by left-wing human rights lawyers—are done at tremendous cost to the UK taxpayer, and it is encouraging that this Bill will overhaul the legal system for asylum claims, finally putting an end to this utter nonsense. If people have no right to be here, they should be swiftly deported—it is as simple as that.
Those on the Opposition Benches, including the Leader of the Opposition, have previously stood on election promises to reintroduce the free movement of people, showing just how out of touch they are with traditional Labour voters. On this side of the House, however, we are building a system that is fair for the British people and reforms our broken asylum system, and this Bill is one I wholeheartedly support.
Before I call the hon. Member for Cardiff North, I should tell the House that after the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), the time limit will reduce to three minutes. With four minutes, I call Anna McMorrin.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The Bill is not about improving legislation, but about hate. It is little more than political gesturing of the worst kind. Worse, it panders to far-right politics, stirring up resentment, fear and division because the system is not working for them. It is the nastiest, most vicious politics.
We live in an increasingly hostile world, where conflict, climate change and covid are making life impossible for many. Innocent families with children flee for their lives, driven from their homes and communities and joining the 30 million refugees worldwide with little more than the clothes on their backs and their hopes and dreams. They flee to protect themselves and their loved ones, but tragically that hope is usually never fulfilled. I recently spoke to a mother who fled drought in South Sudan. She lost her children to thirst and starvation. I have felt the pain of victims of conflict—the many who have fled Syria, who suffered immeasurable brutality and war crimes at the hands of the Assad regime and are heartbroken that they cannot return. I have spoken to women and girls forced into arranged marriages as young children who have fled a life of violence and abuse. They faced sexual assaults, gang rapes, exploitation on the road between camps and homelessness before finding refuge. To those who make that perilous journey, the Government are saying, “We don’t care,” and attempt to build a wall around our shores.
Taking a deliberately and unnecessarily hostile attitude does not tackle the drivers of displacement, which will continue to force the vulnerable to flee and aggravate the very threats that make our lives here at home less secure. It will make the United Kingdom even more isolated, not just from our partners but from the values that made us a welcoming nation.
So many look towards us with hope. As the pandemic has shown, our planet is shared and so are our successes and failures. We must not forget that the United Kingdom was a co-signatory and the first to ratify, with the support of the whole House, the 1951 refugee convention. Rather than be open and inclusive, the Government seek to remove us from those shared challenges, wash our hands of the crises and injustices fuelled by many decisions made at home, and weaken communities’ resilience overseas.
The Bill seeks to criminalise refugees. They are not criminals and seeking safe haven is not a crime. The true crimes are the provisions and the intention at the heart of this heartless Bill. It puts the UK at odds with decades of consensus on the need to offer safety to the persecuted and stateless, and it would breach international law. It picks on the poor and the desperate and the children put in boats by their parents who are desperate because they see that the sea is safer than the land.
When we strip away the means to safe passage, cut international aid, which helps people remain in place, and penalise anyone for facilitating arrivals, how does the Home Secretary intend desperate people to arrive? In stark terms, what would the Bill have meant for the Kindertransport? Would it mean turning our backs on the children fleeing the brutality of Tigray and Yemen today?
I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
My focus today in the short time available—I cannot wait for call lists to end—is a very specific element in the Bill: part 4. I co-sponsored the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill with Lord McColl and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for meeting me and Lord McColl on a number of occasions to look for a way to improve it before it was published. I spoke on 19 October last year about the need for an immigration provision that provides confirmed victims—I stress “confirmed”—with certainty of recovery and the ability to focus on working with the criminal justice system to ensure that we increase the very low number of prosecutions for offences related to modern slavery. I want the House to hold that thought because it is critical. Our self-interest means being better on that element of the Bill.
Part 4 sets out several reforms on modern slavery. I am aware that the Home Secretary is seeking to meet varying objectives through the Bill and that she wants to reduce abuse of the system. I want to deal with clause 52, which will provide identified potential victims in England and Wales with assistance and support for a period when the person is in the national referral mechanism. Although I welcome the support for adult victims in England and Wales during that period being put on a statutory basis, as is already the case in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the support that clause 52 places on a statutory basis is actually less than is currently provided as a matter of practice in England and Wales, which is a problem. Essentially, whereas the current guidance in England and Wales affords 45 days’ support, as does the statute in Scotland and Northern Ireland, clause 52 proposes a reduction in England and Wales to just 30 days’ support for confirmed victims of modern-day slavery. I draw that to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister, because it needs to be dealt with.
My right hon. Friend has many faults, and I am aware of a handful of them, but one of them is not naivety. He has far more qualities, and his quality will tell him that the system is being gamed by all kinds of unscrupulous people. The risk is that modern-day slavery is one way of gaming the system.
I simply ask my right hon. Friend to notice what I said: I referred to those who already have confirmed status as a victim of modern-day slavery. This is important, because it means they have already gone through the NRM. It is a question of how we deal with them at that point. This will give time to arrive at the right conclusions.
Statutory support is provided during the national referral mechanism, so having no such support afterwards makes no sense. They go out of the NRM and are suddenly in the cold world, unable to navigate their way and fearful of retribution by those who treated them so badly in the first place. The provision of support to help these people is also in our self-interest, because it is in our national interest to ensure victims get sufficient support to allow them to help police and prosecutors with criminal investigations. In a way, by reducing such support, we are making things worse.
Clause 53, on leave to remain for victims of slavery or human trafficking, is at the heart of the Bill. I co-sponsored a Bill with Lord McColl to provide leave to remain for 12 months, along with assistance and support, for adult victims who want to remain in the UK. I gave evidence on this to the Home Office, and I am therefore disappointed that, instead of addressing the problems with discretionary leave that I highlighted last October, the Government have simply placed current practice, which is clearly not working, into a statutory framework.
Under clause 53, leave to remain will remain discretionary and the same justifications for its provision will apply: being necessary to assist the police with investigations, being necessary because of personal circumstance or being necessary to make a compensation claim.
The ability of a victim to remain in the UK is unchanged by the Bill, and one would therefore expect that the proportion of confirmed victims in receipt of leave to remain would remain low. In other words, this Bill would perpetuate rather than address the current arrangements in which the vast majority of confirmed victims are denied leave to remain in the UK to help their recovery. The police have made it very clear that they want victims to be settled in accommodation so that they know where they are and they can give evidence.
I support much of what the Bill is trying to do, and I understand the motives behind it, but part 4 deals with those from the most terrible backgrounds and facing the worst persecution, trafficked as they are. We need to give them time, and that time will help us prosecute the very people we wish to go after. Being good and decent is a payback to us at the same time.
I support this Bill, but I look for changes to part 4 during its passage.
As we have heard today, this Bill is deeply flawed, cruel and inhumane. If passed, it would punish those entering our country to seek refuge from violence and persecution. The Bill would see us abandon our international duties and, ultimately, turn our back on the world’s most vulnerable. Under international law there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker, yet, if passed, the Bill would seek to ignore that reality and establish a dangerous new precedent.
I wish to briefly outline two of the most concerning aspects of this legislation. First, I am deeply concerned about the powers that the Bill would allow the Government to create offshore camps in which to detain refugees. There is no justification for such an inhumane practice. Wherever that has been tried, it has failed and put those who are subjected to it at risk of re-traumatisation. The Australian Government’s own report into their offshoring facility in Nauru revealed horrifying conditions, including the sexual abuse of women and children. Meanwhile, detention centres such as Napier barracks demonstrate clearly that this Government are very comfortable with housing asylum seekers in the most squalid conditions. Those conditions would only get worse if the Government were allowed to move asylum centres offshore, out of reach of oversight and accountability.
Secondly, as chair of the all-party group on no recourse to public funds, I am particularly concerned that the Bill would greatly expand the number of people who are subjected to that awful condition. The Bill removes the automatic right to settle for those who secure refugee status having travelled to the UK through another country. By introducing that condition, the Government will substantially increase the number of people who have no recourse to public funds—people who will no longer have the right to work or to access homelessness assistance. In short, if the Bill passes, a huge number of people will be forced into destitution.
In conclusion, if the Government were truly interested in fixing our asylum system, the Bill would have contained new commitments to provide safe routes to this country and to ensure that all those who claim asylum here are able to live a dignified life while they await a decision. Instead, the Bill abandons our obligations under international law, criminalises refugees and expands the cruel and inhumane “no recourse to public funds” regime. For those reasons, I shall be voting against this Bill and I urge all Members to do the same.
Children separated forcibly from their parents at gunpoint, pregnant women held at knifepoint, babies and toddlers stripped of lifejackets and dangled over the side of dinghies. Young women and girls disappearing, unaccounted for; their last known movements in the hands of criminal gangs involved in modern slavery. This is not happening in some far-away conflict zone. This is not happening in a war-ridden country. This is happening here in our land and across the English channel—death, violence, sex trafficking, exploitation, bribery, guns, drugs, modern slavery, and illegal migration. Let us make no mistake: this is the reality of the small boats crisis. Where is the compassion in walking on by, in leaving families, young children and babies in the hands of people traffickers and violent criminal gangs when people are already safe in France and in many other countries before they even get to France?
Let me turn now to the risk to our national security. Persons with criminal intent have been identified coming into Dover in boats picked up in the channel. Any local person knows about the very many boats that do make it onto the land, onto the beaches and onto our shores in the coastal villages of Kingsdown, St Margaret’s and Walmer and further afield. It happens so often—even today, even this very morning. We must be compassionate to people in greatest need—I believe that that unites all parts of this House—but it would also be naïve given the very real risks that exist, with some people actively wishing to do us harm and they do harm others. That is why, for our national security, we must have strong borders and bring an end to the small boats crossing route.
Today’s measures are not about a lack of compassion. They are about recognising that there is no compassion in allowing this illegal activity to continue. Today’s Bill, alongside its sister immigration reform Bill, provides more powers to strengthen our borders and more options to work with other countries to make sure that people are encouraged to use legal and safe routes and discouraged from using these dangerous and illegal ones.
The bottom line is this: it is only when migrants and traffickers alike know that they cannot break into Britain in this way that the small boats crossing route will come to an end.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Member’s Financial Interests because I have help from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy—RAMP—project for my work in this area. RAMP is brilliant, in direct contrast to this Bill, which is the worst I have ever seen. This dog’s dinner would have been avoidable, however, if Ministers had listened to the evidence of experts, or even to the consultation responses, which they have promised, and failed, to publish. I hope that they will publish them as they finalise the Bill. It was strange after 11 years of a Conservative Administration to hear the Home Secretary admit, on the Second Reading of her own Bill, that it was not yet complete, in response to the question from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith).
At a time of rising global crises, this Government could help to stop asylum seekers being created by intervening, perhaps under “global Britain”, but that has sadly proved to be an empty slogan, often mouthed by emptier heads. That given, we have a Government who have twice betrayed their own manifesto—and, of course, the people who voted for them—by cutting our aid and by cutting our armed forces personnel, which will mean shrinking our global reach and influence. This Government are also shrinking our international standing by seeking exclusivism in the form of a new special status for the UK outside international law, to the direct detriment of and cost to other countries, including our immediate neighbours. It is bonkers, but Ministers present this fiction to us. They have a real battle with reality ahead.
It is a fiction to pretend that we have deals with other countries to return anyone to them, except for Albania, a country that we accept asylum claims from. It is a fiction to claim that it is fair to criminalise someone fleeing communist torture and slave labour in Xinjiang, or that it is fair to criminalise RNLI volunteers or anyone on any boat who rescues asylum seekers from drowning. It is a fiction to claim that this Bill is fair on councils, who already pay for Home Office failures and delays, because they will face additional costs through the rough sleeping that these plans will create and the estimated additional £55 million of the new costs of these proposals, which will create 3,000 more people experiencing the pernicious Home Office “no recourse to public funds” restrictions. It is a fiction to pretend that this is fair to the taxpayers who will pick up the bill, whether it is through the Home Office, through councils’ emergency social services or through the new criminal justice and imprisonment costs, which are estimated to be more than £400 million a year.
The only truth I heard from the Home Secretary today is that the system is broken, with the number of people waiting over a year for a decision rising tenfold since 2010, with 33,000 in that position in 2010, including almost 7,000 children. What is maddening is that the number of people working for the Home Office has risen but productivity has collapsed, with around 2,500 people now having waited three years or more for a decision. It is a decade of Tory rule that has broken the Home Office. The party who used to claim to represent law and order has run the Department for law and order into the ground, with nine in 10 crimes now going unpunished in this country. But now, Ministers are asking the Home Office to act unlawfully in pursuing an aim that breaks international law. Sadly, the idea that the people who broke the Home Office now have ideas about how to fix it is also a fiction. I would ask Ministers to think again about these plans, but there is little evidence that they put much thought into the Bill in the first place.
I start by paying tribute to some of the fantastic organisations that support people seeking asylum in my constituency, such as Asylum Link Merseyside, the Merseyside Refugee Support Network and the British Red Cross. Every day, I see the difference they make in supporting some of the most vulnerable people in society who have come to our country seeking refuge, only too often to find that their trauma and suffering are made worse by the hostile environment that this Government have created for them.
I agree with the Home Secretary on one thing: our asylum system is broken. However, that is where our consensus ends. Many aspects of this Bill are objectionable—probably too many to mention in the time available. It is a disgraceful attempt to make people seeking asylum pay the price of the gross mismanagement of the asylum system by the Home Secretary and her predecessors. According to figures from the House of Commons Library, the Home Office’s asylum case load has doubled since 2014. I have constituents who have now been waiting over two years for a decision, and many who have been waiting nearly two years for a substantive interview.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees put proposals to the Government on fixing the asylum system based on its experience and best practice around the world. Instead of implementing those proposals, the Government have chosen to put forward a Bill that undermines our international obligations and our standing in the world. I am sure I am not alone in this House in being proud that the UK was a founding signatory to the 1951 refugee convention. It was then, and is now, an important legacy from the horrors of world war two and the many people who were displaced as a result.
The UNHCR serves as a guardian of the refugee convention. In its detailed observations about the measures in the Bill, UNHCR has been clear that it disagrees with the Home Secretary’s statement that her proposals comply with our obligations under the convention. It has stated that many aspects of the plan do not respect fundamental principles of refugee law and will undermine the 1951 convention and international protection system, not just in the UK but globally.
Let nobody in this House be under any illusion: supporting the measures in the Bill will signal to the world that we are withdrawing from our international obligations. In that context, why would any other country be willing to reach agreement with us on what the Government describe as safe and legal routes? I appeal to hon. Members on the Government Benches who value Britain’s standing and reputation as a global leader not to let the Government get away with undermining the sacrifices and achievements of the generation before us with this Bill. I also call on the Government to share with the House their legal advice to support the Home Secretary’s statement that the measures in the Bill are compatible with our obligations under the 1951 refugee convention.
I believe everyone wants to tackle people smuggling, human trafficking and dangerous trips across the channel. The only way to do that is the one thing that the Bill does not do: to provide safe legal routes to sanctuary in the UK. Instead, the Bill treats asylum seekers more harshly, despite no evidence that such an approach will stop them trying to come here.
The Home Office has been treating asylum seekers abysmally for years, keeping them in unsafe accommodation, making them wait months for a decision on their claim, banning them from working and forcing them to rely on little more than £5 a day. If cruelty were the answer, the problem would have been solved long ago.
What about the legal routes to asylum that the Government promised? The number of people granted asylum in the UK fell by 46% last year. The number of children granted asylum fell by 55%. The Government’s new scheme, which opened in March, resettled 25 refugees in its first month—just 25. That compares with 477 per month on average under the previous schemes. The proposals under the Bill are not just cruel; they undermine the UK’s commitments under the refugee convention. We cannot simply rewrite them to suit ourselves.
The Liberal Democrats are calling for a fully funded commitment to resettle 10,000 vulnerable refugees each year. We should resettle a further 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees from elsewhere in Europe over the next 10 years, and we must guarantee the rights of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Europe to be reunited with family members in the UK.
Another historic injustice that the Bill fails to address is comprehensive sickness insurance. A few years ago, many EU citizens had their application for a permanent residence document refused. Those refusals were down to an obscure need for CSI, which they had never previously needed to live in the UK or to use the NHS. At the time, the Government insisted that they were powerless to change the requirement as it stemmed from EU free movement laws. The requirement was removed from the EU settlement scheme, but CSI is still hidden deep within our rules. Many thousands of children have been cut off from their rights to be citizens of this country, all because of some obscure insurance requirement that no one was told they needed to have. The Government must come clean and use the exit from the EU for some good, as they so often claim they do. There is no more excuse to hold on to the CSI requirement for those seeking to become UK citizens.
Rather than fixing the problem, the Bill will make the problems worse and fail those most in need. I will vote against it.
It is crucial that we restore trust in our immigration system. Our asylum system is in desperate need of reform and our constituents rightly expect it to be fixed.
In only the past year, 16,000 people have entered the country illegally, and those are just the ones we know about. Some of those people are genuinely fleeing persecution and need our support, but others are not, and they may abuse the legal system by making repeated vexatious and often last-minute claims, challenging the Home Office’s ability to remove individuals lawfully in those cases and costing taxpayers a lot of money. That also creates a severe backlog, which delays the processing of genuine asylum cases and slows down our judicial processes.
Most worryingly, there are now 10,000 foreign national offenders in circulation outside prisons in the UK whom the Home Office are intent on deporting but cannot because of legal barriers. I welcome the fact that the Government’s new plan for immigration will speed up the removal of these dangerous foreign criminals. Any foreign national who comes to this country and abuses our hospitality by breaking the law should be in no doubt of the UK Government’s determination to deport them.
When assessing the needs of individual asylum claimants, knowing the age of applicants is really important for ensuring that children get protected and properly looked after. The UK is currently one of the very few countries in Europe that does not commission or employ scientific methods of age assessment when determining how old these young people are. As a consultant paediatrician, the welfare of children is of the utmost importance to me. As a doctor, I have participated in the past in the assessment of asylum-seeking children, and the current system in place is nowhere near accurate enough for making such crucial and important decisions. I welcome the fact that the Bill will enable the use of scientific age assessment techniques, and that there will be increased research into their accuracy, so that we can best direct our efforts to support the youngest and most vulnerable people.
Finally, the Bill addresses a number of anomalies in the system of British nationality law. Behind each of these anomalies is a person and a family, and I am pleased to see a change in the law that I have lobbied for since 2019: nationality for children whose fathers are not the husband of their mother at the time of their birth. One of my constituents, who has served this country on military operations, was shocked to discover that he was unable to get British citizenship for his son, despite the fact that he is British and the son was born in Britain. This is because his European mother was still legally married to a foreign national at the time of their son’s birth, and under the current legislation a child’s father is legally deemed to be the husband at the time the woman gives birth. However, in this particular case my constituent is the father in all biological, emotional and practical terms.
New measures in the Bill will provide an entitlement to British citizenship for people who were previously unable to acquire it because their mother was married to someone other than their biological father at the time of birth. This will fix an outdated rule and ensure that my constituent and many others can rightfully pass on their nationality to their children. I am pleased to support this Bill.
For the sake of clarity, I ought to reiterate what Mr Speaker said to the House earlier today. As the right hon. Member for Doncaster Central (Dame Rosie Winterton) has been required to self-isolate and therefore cannot take her usual place in the Chair, the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) will shortly be taking the Chair having been appointed a temporary Deputy Speaker, and I hope that the House will be gentle with her.
The Government state that this Bill is necessary to deter irregular journeys and increase the fairness of the system in order to support those in need of asylum. I think that most of us in this House agree that the system needs to be fairer. Lengthy waits for asylum applications to be processed are the norm, immigration detention is often indefinite, and modern slavery and trafficking survivors are routinely detained. As the Red Cross states, removing support and raising the penalties for those who arrive irregularly does not address the underlying reasons why people seek safety in the UK.
This Bill is brutal. It in effect punishes those desperate souls who often genuinely flee persecution, famine and war in the hope of safety. The Refugee Council has stated that
“the actual effects of the bill in its current form will be to punish refugees who have been recognised as such under international law, and actually reduce safe and regular routes to the UK as refugee family reunion rights become more limited.”
One of the most dangerous parts of the proposals is that someone’s means of arrival will determine how worthy they are of protection in the UK. Asylum seekers arriving through anything other than resettlement will receive a lesser form of protection, including temporary status, no access to financial support and limited rights to family reunion. In fact, the new proposals plan to criminalise anyone arriving irregularly, not through official channels. But as we all know, people fleeing atrocities are rarely afforded the luxury of arriving through official channels. As the UN Refugee Agency has confirmed, this principle is in breach of the refugee convention.
These are cruel and unworkable plans. I agree with Amnesty International:
“Instead of introducing this piece of utter legislative vandalism, what the Home Office should be doing is establishing safe routes for the relatively few people escaping persecution who wish to seek asylum here…This reckless and deeply-unjust bill is set to bring shame on Britain’s international reputation.”
I call Liz Saville Roberts.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Madam Ddirprwy Lefarydd.
The Bill is an assault on the human rights of men and women who happen to be asylum seekers and on our common humanity. Across Wales, thousands of decent people are united. This legislation shames us, and it is not in our name. It expands the hostile environment by criminalising asylum seekers and their families. The Bill’s proposed tier system for claiming asylum rips up the basic tenets of the 1951 refugee convention: that people’s mode of arrival should have no influence on whether they are legitimate refugees or on their right to make an asylum claim.
The potential criminalisation of the life-saving work of organisations such as the RNLI is incomprehensible. I commend the determination of our lifeboat crews to continue to come to the aid of anyone in peril on the sea. The Bill threatens to penalise seafarers if they do not leave people to perish, and thus it scorns the UN convention for the safety of life at sea, as well as the refugee convention.
Expanding the use of detention-style asylum accommodation will result in more people being sent to sites such as Penally camp in Pembrokeshire, which was described by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration as
“impoverished, run-down and unsuitable for long-term accommodation.”
Let us not forget that the Home Office was shamed into closing Penally only four months ago.
The human cost of these proposed changes would be immense. They would criminalise people such as Joseff Gnagbo and prevent them from seeking sanctuary in the UK. After fleeing the Ivory Coast following threats to his life, Joseff sought refuge in Wales. He now works as a carer, a translator and a teacher, and he volunteers for Cymdeithas yr Iaith, the Welsh Language Society. These are his words, and they are worth hearing:
“We are already treated as an inconvenience under the current asylum system. Under these reforms, we will be treated as criminals... The welcome I have received by the people of Wales in that time is in stark contrast with the Home Office’s cruel policies. I want refugees and asylum seekers to have more help in integrating into Welsh society. Sadly, this legislation seeks to make that almost impossible.”
Wales is a far richer place because of people such as Joseff, but the Home Secretary would make criminals of them. We must stand up to this heartless borders Bill, which prevents Wales from fulfilling the humane, honourable ambition of our own Parliament: to become
“a nation of sanctuary for refugees.”
I rise to speak in support of this Nationality and Borders Bill, because the current system is not working for the interests either of nationality or of UK borders.
It cannot be right that over the past year an estimated 16,000 people have entered this country illegally—and that has been during a period when international travel has been severely restricted because of the covid-19 pandemic. It is right that the system be changed and updated so that people who come to the United Kingdom should do so on a legal basis, not circumvent the system that exists. The suggestion that those coming to this country from continental Europe are fleeing persecution in those countries is ridiculous. There is no analogy with the situation that existed in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
I wish to mention an aspect of nationality that has not been properly addressed: the position of the descendants of the Chagos islanders who were forcibly removed from the British Indian ocean territory by Harold Wilson’s Administration in the late 1960s and typically resettled in Mauritius, the Seychelles and some other locations. Many of those descendants are the grandchildren of people who were British subjects in the British Indian ocean territory and now find themselves with, in effect, no rights to British citizenship, despite the fact that it was no fault of their own that their grandparents and relatives were forcibly exiled from their home territory.
I would therefore be grateful if the Government considered including in the Bill a clause to rectify that anomaly, which affects a relatively small number of people. This injustice has existed for more than half a century. I plan to introduce an amendment on Report, but I hope that the Government can work with me to remedy this historical injustice once and for all.
I am pleased to have the chance to speak in this debate, although I regret the fact that the time limit means my comments will be brief.
This important Bill aims to provide a fair and safe asylum system and give greater rights and protections to those who have legally sought asylum in the UK. It seeks properly to control our borders and thereby strengthen our national security, and it will clamp down on some of the most despicable criminals: the gangs who make money from people smuggling and modern slavery. For me, that is the most important provision in the Bill.
Everyone in this place should back any measures that will stop the trade in human misery. We all remember the tragic deaths of migrants who have paid smugglers to cram them into lorries without sufficient ventilation. We have seen people with no sailing experience who have paid to be piled into unseaworthy vessels—often nothing more than a dinghy—and then pushed offshore to make a dangerous and, tragically, often deadly sea crossing. It is the duty of our Home Secretary to take any measures she can to stop these perilous attempts to enter UK, and I thank her for her clear commitment to reform the system and stop the organised criminals. Let us be clear: while such journeys are deemed to be viable, others will attempt the same journeys. We must act to stop them.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) said, many who seek to come to the UK by illegal routes are economic migrants. If I had more time, I would speak about the work that the UK is doing in trade and education, and the work that we should do to help developing countries to really develop, so that people all over the world can have prosperous, fulfilling lives for themselves and their families.
I was deeply disappointed by the shadow Home Secretary’s remarks about the Bill creating a more discriminatory asylum system, because by not supporting measures in the Bill he would allow the current system to continue. He must surely look at the current system and see the clear discrimination against older people, disabled people, women and children—against anyone unable or less able to make long, arduous, dangerous journeys.
As I have only a few more seconds, I conclude by saying that we should all want a fair and just asylum system, and such a system does not say that if people are young enough, fit enough or brave enough, they can get ahead and jump the queue. A fair and just asylum system does not reward organised gangs of criminals for putting vulnerable people’s lives at risk. A fair and just asylum system is not this perverse and deadly real-life “Hunger Games”. That is why we must act and why I support the Home Secretary’s measures. I commend her determination to stop these vile, inhumane practices.
I call Patrick Grady.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope you are enjoying the view—congratulations.
I sometimes wonder whether the Home Secretary or her cheerleaders on the Government Benches have ever actually met an asylum seeker. If the asylum seekers who come to my surgeries in Glasgow North find it stressful, embarrassing or upsetting to have to carry a biometric ID card that states that they have no right to work when, being a human being, they are born with that right, or that they have no recourse to public funds, it is no less humiliating to have to explain from the other side of the surgery table why the Government are so unremittingly hostile to their presence in this country.
It is easy to stand at the Dispatch Box or on the Back Benches and say that these people should leave the UK; try looking them in the eyes—eyes that have seen horrors that some of us cannot even imagine—and saying that. I defy any Minister or any Tory Back Bencher to come to the next meeting of the Maryhill Integration Network Voices group, listen to the testimonies of the men and women who take part and then come back to this House and justify the policies that they are promoting today.
For 20 years the Maryhill Integration Network has supported asylum seekers and refugees in the north of Glasgow, welcoming them into the community, and helping to share experiences, culture, food and joy across the entire city. For 17 of those years, it has been led by the remarkable Rema Sherifi, until her recent retirement. Rema was a refugee—she was a journalist in Kosovo—who fled to a refugee camp in Macedonia with her family, before being evacuated to Glasgow for health reasons. Since that time she has worked tirelessly to support thousands of others who have been through similar experiences, helping people to overcome traumas, and learn how to make new lives as part of Glasgow’s wonderfully diverse community.
My friend and constituent Abdul Bostani has a similar story. He fled the Taliban in Afghanistan at the age of 18, and on arrival in the UK he was put on a bus to Glasgow, a city he had never heard of. Twenty years later he is a proud father who works in translation and runs Glasgow Afghan United, which brings people together for sport, language, culture and other activities. How many more Remas and Abduls are out there who could help to transform our country and make it a better place for everyone, but who instead will find themselves shut out, turned away, and criminalised by the Bill? How many will be put up in barracks before being deported, and criminalised on the moment of arrival, because of course they had to struggle to get here—their oppressive regime did not give them a passport and a ticket to the airport?
Hostility is the hallmark of this Government: hostility to devolution, hostility to the aid budget, and now a supercharging of the hostile environment for refugees and asylum seekers. A hostile environment pervades the Home Office. The visa system is in at least as much of a mess as the asylum system, and it amounts to one message: global Britain is closed. Do not come here unless you are going to spend lots of money and then leave again very quickly.
I agree with the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on his point about the Chagossians. Well Scotland wants no part of it. In time, Scotland will have its own immigration system, and just as Scots have been welcomed and made their homes in countries around the world, we will welcome travellers, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, respecting their human rights and our humanitarian responsibilities. I say this to refugee and asylum-seeking constituents in Glasgow North: no matter what you hear from the Tory Dispatch Box today, you are welcome in Glasgow, you are welcome in Scotland, we want you to be safe, and we want you to stay.
I was elected in 2019 on a manifesto that promised to reform our immigration system. For too long, excessive and uncontrolled immigration, and abuses of our asylum system, have allowed people to get around the rules without much prospect of ever being removed once they are here. The Bill is an important turning point. It provides the powers we need to remove people who should not be here, and to discourage anyone who would try to cross into the country illegally. The message is simple: if you come here illegally by irregular means, you will not be staying.
The Bill has three main objectives: first, to increase the fairness of the system better to protect and support those in need of asylum; secondly, to deter illegal entry into the United Kingdom, thereby breaking people smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger; and thirdly, to remove more easily those with no right to be in the UK. Those aims are sensible, proportionate and just. They are also what the public want us to do.
Whenever I am out and about in Hyndburn and Haslingden, I hear concerns from residents about controlling our borders and cracking down on illegal immigration. There is a proper asylum route into this country, and it is important that people realise they will be punished if they do not follow it. The Bill will not only deter those people who get in boats to make illegal crossings, but it will smash the networks that bring them here. There are no words strong enough to express my contempt for the traffickers, who give people false hope and then risk their lives by unscrupulously smuggling them into the country for a huge fee. We need an asylum system that is compassionate towards people who apply to come here, processes claims efficiently and effectively, and quickly removes anyone who is not successful in their application. The Bill delivers on all that.
The Bill will broaden criminal sanctions for offences related to illegal entry or bringing people here illegally, and it will increase the maximum penalties for both. It will also give border and immigration staff additional powers to stop and redirect vessels out of UK territorial waters. The Bill is an important step in creating a new immigration system, based on merit, which controls who, when, and how people can come here, and cuts immigration overall. It gives my constituents confidence that the Government have heard their concerns on immigration, and are working to tackle them.
Judged while seeking justice. Criminalised while fleeing criminals. Expelled while being exploited. Scapegoated while escaping some of the worst violations against human dignity or human rights. In breach of global agreements. The words in the Bill should never enter the minds of anyone, let alone those entrusted to protect us. They should never be echoed in the Chamber, let alone be brought forward in legislation. In our country—the place that founded human rights—the Government have reached the depths of stigmatising people fleeing war, terror, trafficking, climate catastrophe and, yes, destitution, judging them on how they arrived, not what they have left. As the Government play on the global stage by cutting aid to the world’s poorest and removing their last hope of being able to stay home and support family and community, play with our climate, which is burning our planet and every grain that could feed the most destitute, play war by selling arms while walking away from building peace, fail to use their voice, power and influence on the global stage to stem some of the worst violations against humanity, and preside over a broken asylum system and do not fix it, they must recognise their contribution to the decimation of the global order before pointing the blame at its victims.
From centuries of imperial abuse to withdrawing from reparation today, the Government are now prepared to suppress a small number of the 80 million people forced from their homes and land without shelter or hope. They are prepared to criminalise people who, for the want of safety and survival, and some just to be reunited with their families, have been subject to criminal gangs. Worse, the Bill will stop people even fleeing danger as the Government force them to apply to enter the UK from a place of peril or some offshore hidden place, creating more risk, more trauma and more harm.
I appeal to all Government Members not to tread those dark paths. I appeal to all who say they live by a moral code and are here to further justice and advance human rights not to support their Government tonight but to uphold our British values, which welcome the repressed and offer people somewhere to live safely. I am so proud to represent York, the UK’s only human rights city and a city of sanctuary, where we put the needs of others before our own, tear down walls and create bridges, and take care of those whose stories break us as they recount the trauma they have endured in their lives. We listen and we act. We quicken our resolve to speak up and stand up for human rights and against violations and abuses. That is why I speak out to oppose this oppressive legislation and say: not in my name.
I call Sir John Hayes.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Welcome to the Chair. Edmund Burke said:
“Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all.”
Restoring justice and order to the chaotic and confusing asylum system broadcasts that a line in the sand has been drawn that will not fade away with every new boat that arrives on the beach. The Bill is a testament to the principle that laws must be just and be seen to be; otherwise, we can hardly call them law at all.
According to poll after poll, the vast majority of the public see illegal immigration as a serious problem. Is it any wonder when there were 16,000 illegal entrants into Britain last year, with 8,500 on boats? Those are the ones we know about. This year alone, 7,000 have arrived on those boats.
Does my right hon. Friend not think that somehow turning the debate simply into, “Everyone who claims asylum must have a legitimate claim and everyone who is against it must be racist” does not help in trying to get to the just law that he is talking about?
Absolutely, it does not, nor is it just to pillory the public and those who speak for them when they argue that we should enforce the law and that migration should be controlled. As a number of hon. Members have said, legal migration has been out of control for some time, and illegal migration, by its very nature, is both unjust and unfair because it breaks the law. It breaches that principle that people who arrive here and pursue legal routes are doing the right thing and that those who do not are simply doing the wrong thing and should be deported. That is what the public think, and that is what we should say very clearly.
Is no one on the Conservative Benches remotely concerned that the Bill would see a Uyghur fleeing persecution in China, a Syrian fleeing disastrous war crimes in that country or a persecuted Christian seeking sanctuary on this shore criminalised with an offence that could see them in prison for up to four years, stripped of their family reunion rights, offshored and whatever else? Does nobody on those Benches have any qualms about that whatsoever?
Surely the hon. Gentleman must realise that while the principle of granting asylum—of giving sanctuary to people in desperate need—is a noble one, it is being gamed, day after day and month after month, with people travelling through many safe countries before claiming asylum, repeated claims on a whole range of different grounds, and even modern slavery, which we all deplore, being used as a justification to stay here when it is invented. That is to insult—to besmirch—those who are really suffering persecution and who come here in genuine need. It is being gamed, frankly, by a combination of unscrupulous civil rights and human rights activists, and people-traffickers. Although they do not work together in an organised fashion, the combination of the two is damaging public faith in our ability to control our borders. If “take back control” means anything, surely it means taking back control of our sovereign borders.
When the average Briton sees the asylum system being played, it leaves them bewildered, frustrated and angry that we should be taken for such fools. British people do not want to pull up the drawbridge to the world’s needy. What they want is a consistent system that helps the right people in the right way: one that will remove those with no right to stay in Britain just as it protects those we ought to be protecting, not one that grants favour to those who manage to successfully break our laws when they first arrive here.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, contrary to what the Opposition are saying, the Government are not changing their approach to maritime law and those organisations and individuals will still be able to rescue anybody who is in distress at sea?
As my hon. Friend may know, I am a former maritime Minister, and it absolutely right to say that the agreement that we have with the International Maritime Organisation to rescue people at sea is also being exploited by unscrupulous people, and we need to be mindful of that fact.
This Bill goes some way to addressing the huge gulf that exists between public perceptions and those of the liberal establishment that has too much say about too many things in this country. Criminal gangs and desperate economic migrants know that every time bleeding-heart liberals oppose tougher penalties and tougher measures—and so blur the distinction between those in genuine need and those who break the rules—they do immense harm to the cause of genuine asylum seekers.
Finally, let me say a word about foreign criminals, who have been mentioned. In 2010, there were 4,000 foreign criminals here; now, there are 10,000. Surely every one should be deported. We do not want to import crime into our country. We must take back control and we must pass this Bill to do so.
I call Angela Crawley.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I welcome you to your role. I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate and to follow several hon. Members who have spoken so eloquently on this Bill—sadly, for the most part, on the Opposition Benches.
My colleagues and I will oppose this abhorrent legislation that rides roughshod over the refugee convention. As we approach the 30th anniversary of the convention, this Bill places some of the most vulnerable people in the world at risk of destitution, exploitation and family separation. The Government’s rhetoric and virtue signalling has failed to comprehend the valuable contributions that those people make to our society, regardless of how they got there. If the Bill is passed, it will, as we have heard, cast the UK adrift from international law, making it more insulated from other countries and staining what is still left of our international reputation on the world stage. It is insensitive, rushed and deeply problematic given its intention to effectively end the right to seek asylum in the UK. By doing so, it contravenes the refugee convention itself and also the European convention on human rights. The Bill proposes a two-tier system and a two-tier approach to asylum, despite there being no legal requirement in international law for an applicant to seek asylum in the first country they reach.
By bringing this Bill forward, the Home Secretary is ignoring both international and UK law with her approach, as well as being blind to the fact that how an applicant arrives in the UK is unrelated to the level of protection that they require. The Home Secretary encourages asylum seekers to use official schemes to make their application, fully aware that in many cases the abhorrent regimes that an asylum seeker is seeking refuge from will place them and their families at greater risk. The risk that many asylum seekers face is not a choice they make freely; it is a choice they make simply because it is the only choice they have left—to turn to criminal gangs for help, leaving them open to exploitation.
The UK simply cannot depart from international law on an issue that requires co-operation with other countries and by doing so refuse to play its part in supporting some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. The Bill is shoddy, it vandalises the UK’s international reputation and it undermines the devolution settlement itself.
Stoke-on-Trent, which I am proud to represent, has the fifth-highest rate of asylum seekers per 10,000 of population, Glasgow being the first. Does the hon. Lady agree that the SNP-led councils outside Glasgow should step up and do their bit, and start being part of the asylum dispersal scheme?
I thank the hon. Member for that comment. Feel free to fund Glasgow City Council to deal with the situation that, frankly, the Government have caused.
Most importantly, the Bill ignores the reality of why people flee in the first place and seek safety. That wilful ignorance lies within the Bill’s severest risk of harm to refugees seeking protection in the UK. [Interruption.] The Bill would put the continued use of military-style barracks at the heart of the Home Office strategy, flying in the face of court rulings and expert opinion, including the NHS and Public Health England. [Interruption.] Their use has been ruled unlawful and the court has banned it by a decision of the High Court. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) wishes to make a further intervention I will take it, otherwise I will carry on. It is simply astonishing that the Home Office is casually disregarding that ruling and the views of public health experts, and placing this practice at the heart of the Bill.
The Bill is one of the many reasons that Scotland needs her independence and to break away from this insular little Britain that the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister are working to create. These are real people. These are real lives. That someone should arrive here, illegally by this Government’s definition, by exploitation or worse and be penalised for the very notion that they make it successfully here at all is absolutely abhorrent. This place should be regarded as a safe haven. The UK is that opportunity for many, many people. This Government turn their back on so many lives.
Now then, Janis Bite was 13 years old and living in Latvia at the start of world war two. Two years later, the Nazis came. Their request was simple: one male member from each family to go and fight the Russians. It was either Janis, his dad or his younger brother, so Janis went to the Russian front and witnessed the horrors of war in temperatures of minus 40.
When the war ended in 1945, Janis was classed as a displaced person—a refugee. Imagine that. He could not go back to Latvia, because he had been sent straight to Siberia and that is where they sent his dad, so Janis was given two more choices: the US or the UK. So he came to the UK to a small village in Derbyshire, where he and other refugees were housed in Nissen huts in army barracks. He did not complain or whinge or moan about the barracks or set fire to the barracks or make TikTok videos. In fact, they were so grateful to the UK that they all volunteered to work in the fields at local farms picking potatoes and other seasonal vegetables for no pay. Janis met a girl in the village, he fell in love and he later married. He worked hard all his life and had three sons, one of them being Alan in Ashfield. Janis loved his football. He became a British citizen and loved this country. He even went on to meet our Queen. Janis is no longer with us, but his story makes me feel incredibly proud of our great country and its willingness to help people from all over the world.
The story my hon. Friend is telling is a story of someone who sought our aid and got it, but would he contrast that with what is happening now? Would Janis not take the view, which has been articulated in this Chamber tonight, that the system that he held in such high regard is now being gamed and exploited, besmirching the good name of our country and people like him?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. That is absolutely right. I spoke to Janis’s family last week in Ashfield, and they made exactly that point. I will feed that back to them when I get back to Ashfield this weekend.
We have always been a welcoming and tolerant country that has reached out to genuine refugees from all over the world, but just like Janis’s family in Ashfield, most people in the UK do not accept that people travelling here from France in dinghies are genuine asylum seekers—[Interruption.] They are not genuine asylum seekers. We know that many of them have been trafficked with a clear instruction on how to claim asylum once they get here. That is because our asylum system is not fit for purpose, and this Bill stops that.
The Labour party and the Opposition want to bring back free movement. They dislike our points-based immigration system, and now they are going to vote against a Bill that protects our borders and helps us deport foreign murderers and rapists. They will always vote against the British people. This new Bill will ensure that people in genuine need, like Janis all those years ago, get the help they need, and the greedy lawyers and the human traffickers will be told, “No more.” We owe it to people such as Janis who are suffering today to ensure that we have a fairer system that offers genuine refugees a safe haven. This Bill does that.
We have nothing to be ashamed of in this country. We are a kind, tolerant and welcoming country. That is proven by the number of people who risk their lives every single day to get here. If Janis’s family can see that the current situation is unacceptable, surely the Opposition should see that too.
I give a massive thanks to the Home Secretary, who has stuck to her guns. She has listened to the British people and delivered. Opposition MPs want to travel into reality. I will offer this opportunity to all of you now sitting there now with those glazed expressions on your face: come down to Ashfield, come speak to some real people in my towns and villages, and the message you will get will be completely different from the message you are feeding into this House. I am here because of you lot and the attitudes you had in 2019. We are getting tough on crime, we are getting tough on immigration and we are getting tough on law and order.
I call Stephen Timms.
Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker, and congratulations on taking the Chair. I am delighted to see you there.
Every year or two, we hear from a Conservative Home Secretary that they are going to fix the broken system. The Home Secretary has told us again tonight that the system is broken, and of course she is right: it is broken. All the previous attempts—we have heard about exactly the same things in the past—have not fixed it, and this one will not either. I cannot agree with the thinking in this Bill that making life more miserable for people whose circumstances are already utterly miserable will fix these problems and deter people from their desperate efforts to reach the UK.
Most people think that distinguishing between asylum seekers on the basis of their route to the UK is contrary to the 1951 refugee convention. No doubt that will end up in the courts. I am particularly dismayed by plans to process asylum applications overseas. We have no idea where this will happen. We certainly should know before we agree to this Bill.
Australia has offshore facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, although nobody has been sent there since 2013. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees urged that they should be evacuated because of poor health standards, highlighting in particular the number of suicides there. Those facilities shame Australia, and if we go down the same road, it will shame us too.
The long wait for asylum decisions is a massive problem. I asked the Home Secretary about this earlier. There are 50% more asylum caseworkers now than there were in 2014-15, but the number of decisions they make has gone down every single year in that time. Why has productivity fallen so far? I asked the Home Secretary that and she did not give me an answer. Without fixing the problem, things will just carry on getting worse.
The number waiting more than a year for initial decisions, as we have been reminded repeatedly in this debate, has risen tenfold since 2010. I have seen that in constituency surgeries. People wait four years, and they have no idea when they will hear anything. Sometimes a reply to me is the only way they know they actually are in the Home Office system. They have no other evidence that they are.
I strongly support the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) for legally binding targets to process asylum cases more quickly. If people cannot stay, they should be told soon, not, as happens so often at the moment, after years, so that leaving is impractical and in practice hardly ever happens. The current gross inefficiency helps nobody. I hope the House will reject this Bill.
Our United Kingdom has always stood up for those in need, whether by helping the thousands escaping fascism in Europe in the 20th century or by offering a home to the people of Hong Kong who face persecution at the hands of the Chinese communist party.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, an adopted Stokie, is right to say that our asylum system is broken. People in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke will see images of people crossing the channel illegally in small boats and are rightly infuriated, because they know the impact that illegal immigration has. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have done more than almost any other area in giving asylum seekers a home. At the end of 2020, we had the fifth highest rate of asylum seekers per 10,000 of population in the whole UK, housing more than 1,000 asylum seekers. That means that one in every 250 people living in Stoke is now an asylum seeker, and with the certainty of even more illegal entries into the UK on boats, in lorries or through those arriving without visas, places such as Stoke-on-Trent will be pushed to their limit. In 14 council wards, the one in 200 cluster limit has already been breached in Stoke-in-Trent, with Etruria and Hanley, a ward I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), having a ratio of one in 44. The stark truth is that our city has reached its limits. Services such as our local NHS and schools are under strain and being stretched even further, and I fully support the decision by Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s leader, Councillor Abi Brown, to pause our involvement with the asylum dispersal scheme.
Perhaps some of the asylum seekers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency could be given the right to work and could then work in the schools and hospitals, and the whole community could benefit from the economic, cultural and social growth they would bring, rather than demonising, othering and making people afraid of them.
I see the hon. Gentleman getting very animated. I just hope he can convince his Scottish National party colleagues—or the nats—to get involved in the asylum dispersal scheme. I know that the Minister will be very keen for meetings tomorrow to start the paperwork and let us have lots more councils in Scotland taking part in the scheme.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for taking my intervention. He keeps saying this, as do many of his colleagues. However, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) met the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities last week and it said, as it has so many times before, that every one of the other 31 local authorities in Scotland would be happy to get involved in the asylum dispersal scheme if it were funded—why shouldn’t it be funded? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it should be properly funded.
Stoke-on-Trent, sadly, has the second lowest council tax revenue income of any local authority in England, yet all I am hearing from those opposite is excuses, excuses, excuses. The SNP has money for all these vanity projects, but it does not have any money to look after asylum seekers—I find it baffling. By creating new accommodation centres, removing asylum seekers to a safe third country while an asylum claim is pending, in the same ways as is being done in Denmark, increasing maximum penalties for entering the UK illegally, enabling the quicker and easier removal of foreign criminals convicted of horrific crimes such as rape and murder, creating new safe and legal routes that will be looked on favourably when people apply for asylum, and backing our Border Force to stop and redirect boats out of British waters, returning them to safe countries from which they came, such as France, this Bill is delivering the reforms that we need and that are wanted by the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the picture he paints is not the same as the one we experience in Scotland. In Glasgow, in Kenmure Street, people wrapped themselves around those who were being deported by the Home Office and said, “Refugees are welcome.” The picture he paints is not representative of the whole of the UK—it is inaccurate and false.
I have the greatest respect for the people of Glasgow, their council and their MPs, because they have got involved in the asylum dispersal scheme, and they deserve full recognition and credit for that. That is just like how Stoke-on-Trent has wrapped its arms around the people who have come to this country in need and looked after them. But we have simply said that our NHS, local schools and local council services cannot do this any more and it simply has to come to a point where fairness is applied equally. I say to the hon. Lady again that if all the SNP councils that are not in Glasgow want to, they can meet the Minister and get the asylum dispersal scheme signed up to and we can share the load across our country.
But let us talk about the Labour party, who will listen to the woke mob on Twitter rather than listening to the people in former red wall seats. The Labour party wants to sign back up to free movement, which its leader spent years arguing for when trying to block Brexit. He also believes that immigration controls are racist. I suggest that the Labour party champagne socialists of north Islington, whose Labour-run council had not given accommodation to a single asylum seeker by the end of 2020, and their leftie sponging lawyer friends who soak up taxpayers’ money by preventing foreign criminals from being deported should get out and talk to some real people rather than worrying about their likes on Twitter. The truth is that the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke want to take back control and this Bill delivers that.
I call Allan Dorans.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Good evening and welcome to the Chair.
“It is a sad fact that in our broken world forced migration is a reality…UK Government Ministers might wish for people to stop trying to cross the English Channel but when there is still conflict and injustice in the world then there will always be those wanting to seek sanctuary from war and suffering.”
The hon. Gentleman talks about conflict and suffering and, of course, we deplore that on both sides of the House, but I am not aware that that conflict and suffering are in France. Much as I deplore many aspects of French civilisation, including its attitude to the monarchy, France is in the G7, the G20 and a founder member of the United Nations, so I do not understand why he feels that we need to give a safe home to those who are already in a fellow G7 member state.
They are fleeing conflict and war. That may be not be in France, but they are fleeing from it in their own countries where they are in severe danger of losing their lives.
Will he just clarify whether, in his view, France is a safe country?
It is a safe country, but these asylum seekers are travelling from war-torn countries where their lives are in danger.
“We cannot close the door and instead we need to call out this policy for what it is—xenophobic populism which exploits people’s fears of the outsider.”
Those are not my words, but the words of Susan Brown, a leading member of the Church of Scotland and honorary chaplain to the Queen in Scotland, after seeing the consultation paper on the Bill. Susan clearly does not believe in myths, such as that immigrants are a drain on the NHS and the benefits system or that they bring increases in violent crime with them. For her, this is about being the kind of people we would want to be, treating others as we would hope they would treat us and our families were the roles reversed.
Some may argue that strict immigration policies are necessary to protect our borders and our country from the effects of immigration. However, on our NHS staffing, migration is good for the NHS. Migrants are an essential part of the healthcare workforce. They are the consultants, doctors, nurses, porters, cleaners, canteen staff and other people who look after the nation. 13.3% of NHS staff in hospitals and community services in England reported a non-British nationality. Among doctors, that proportion is 20.4%. Many doctors trained abroad and, in March 2019, 20% of GPs in England qualified outside the UK. Immigration is a necessary part of the British way of life.
On healthcare, the demand among migrants to the UK is lower than among the UK-born population, except among in-patients for childbirth. In Scotland, migrants from outside the UK are in general young and have low healthcare needs. Consequently, there is little evidence of increased demand for health services. On benefits, foreign-born people are less likely to receive key Department for Work and Pensions out-of-work benefits than UK-born people. On crime, in Scotland, statistics for individual crime participation tend to show that migrants are less likely to commit crime than observably similar people who were born in the United Kingdom.
I return to Susan Brown of the Church of Scotland, who said:
“What we need is political leadership which acknowledges and allays people’s concerns and promotes the importance of human life and dignity…This means giving asylum seekers the right to work…Establishing safe passage routes or humanitarian corridors to the UK for those that need sanctuary…and…support for individuals to alleviate destitution and poverty.”
In conclusion, I urge the Government to seriously reconsider many aspects of the Bill and to adopt a more appropriate economic and humanitarian approach to nationality and immigration.
I call Jack Brereton.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome you to your elevated position.
Many of my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South are shocked and angered by the illegal crossings of the English channel. The integrity of our borders is broken, and my constituents are fed up of seeing people continue to enter the UK illegally. We must act to put an end to the profiteering of criminal people traffickers, for whom illegal routes have become an industry, and we must deter those who seek to make these perilous journeys across the busiest shipping lane in the world in no more than a rubber dinghy.
Clearly, there must be safe routes for those in desperate need. The UK and Stoke-on-Trent have a proud record of helping those in the greatest need, but what my constituents cannot understand is why there should be any need to make illegal journeys to do so: European countries are safe, and those attempting to claim asylum should do so in those countries.
We have seen repeated attempts to game the system, using any legal loophole to do so. There were 16,000 illegal immigrants last year yet, because the system is overwhelmed and repeatedly abused, deportations are declining. The increased pressures we have seen on the entire immigration system put enormous weight on the few asylum dispersal areas. Stoke-on-Trent has seen one of the highest proportions of refugees in the entire country.
Does the hon. Member accept the criticism from his former colleague Anna Soubry, who said the Conservative party is now a “Trumpian”, far-right, “populist” party?
I do not agree with that. We have absolutely supported those in the most desperate need. It is about making sure we support the genuine ones in those countries and regions. We have supported around 25,000 over the past six years in this country, which is the most in the whole of Europe. We will not take any lectures from the SNP, which talks so much about support for immigrants but does not do a single thing. Glasgow is the only city in Scotland to be a dispersal area. The rest of Scotland does not lift a single finger to help asylum seekers.
Stoke does all the heavy lifting.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Cities such as Stoke-on-Trent are actually putting in the effort.
The hon. Member’s statement that Glasgow is the only place in Scotland that accepts refugees is untrue. South Lanarkshire, my local authority, has accepted a number of refugees, particularly after 2014. [Hon. Members: “How many?”] I do not have the numbers, but the fact stated by the hon. Member is untrue.
Glasgow is the only official asylum dispersal area in Scotland. Other authorities have the opportunity to come forward as dispersal areas, but SNP-controlled authorities in Scotland have failed to do so. All the pressure has fallen on the minority of authorities that are dispersal areas, while numerous authorities have failed to resettle a single asylum seeker.
The west midlands is currently accommodating 12.26%, an increase on 2019, but all of this is falling on only half of the authorities in the region. In Stoke-on-Trent it is having a significant impact on our overstretched local services.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can join our delegation tomorrow, because what we seek and what the cross-party Home Affairs Committee has advised is that the Home Office properly fund the dispersal system. Every single local authority in Scotland got involved in the refugee resettlement scheme because it was properly funded. I am more than happy to join him in seeking more money for dispersal areas, and we will all then happily sign up to do the job properly.
What the hon. Gentleman is actually saying is, “We are happy for authorities like Stoke-on-Trent to continue to pull their weight, and we in Scotland will just sit here, not pull our weight and continue not to support asylum seekers in this country.”