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Channel Crossings in Small Boats

Volume 704: debated on Monday 22 November 2021

The number of people coming into our country illegally on small boats is unacceptable. It is the result of a global migration crisis. Just last week, I met my counterparts in the US, who are grappling with similar diplomatic, legal, legislative and operational issues. It is fair to say that in all my dialogues with counterparts and Interior Ministers, including the Polish Interior Minister this morning, similar feedback is taking place across the board.

We would be in a much worse position if it were not for the work already untaken by the Government. We have ensured that the National Crime Agency has the resourcing it needs to tackle and go after the people-smuggling gangs, resulting in 94 ongoing investigations, 46 arrests and eight convictions this year. We have also: reached two new deals with France, putting more police officers on French beaches and introducing new groundbreaking technology to better detect migrants; set up a joint intelligence cell with France to target migrant interceptions on French beaches; introduced new and tougher criminal offences for those attempting to enter the UK illegally; laid statutory instruments to stop asylum claims being made at sea; and agreed returns deals with India and Albania—and had discussions just last week with Pakistan—to take back more foreign national offenders and failed asylum seekers, with more returns deals imminent.

All these measures form part of the new plan for immigration, which I launched in this House in February this year. The remaining components of that plan are currently making their way through Parliament in the Nationality and Borders Bill, and I look forward to working with all colleagues to ensure that it receives Royal Assent as soon as possible. The Bill introduces a range of measures, including but not limited to: a one-stop appeals process; the ability for asylum claims to be heard offshore in a third country; the ability to declare those who arrive in the UK having passed through safe countries where they could have claimed asylum inadmissible to our asylum system, meaning no recourse to public funds and limited family reunion rights; visa penalties for countries refusing to take back their nationals; quicker returns of foreign national offenders; and a new age verification to prevent adult asylum seekers from posing as children.

If any hon. or right hon. Members have concrete proposals that are not already featured in the new plan for immigration, I would be happy to meet to discuss them. My door is always open, particularly to those from the Opposition Benches because of course they attack the new plan for immigration. They have not supported it and they voted against it, not because they are genuinely frustrated at the number of illegal migrants entering our country, as those on this side of the House and the British public are, but because they will always stand up for unlimited migration and free movement. They have always said that and always will do. That is why they have voted against the new plan to tackle crossings, with the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) opposing the development of operational solutions to turn back the boats. He even refuses to say if his ambition is to reduce the number of illegal migrants coming here. Can he do so today?

Those on the Government Benches will continue to confront this difficult and complex issue, no matter how controversial or complex others may deem it to be. We will find legislative and operational solutions, and we will treat this with the same grit and determination with which we have treated all the other challenges our country has faced, including leaving the European Union and delivering a points-based immigration system. Let me restate, as I did in February and have done repeatedly, that this will take time. The only solution to this problem is wholesale reform of our asylum system, which the new plan delivers.

Some 25,700 people have risked their lives in these most dangerous shipping lanes this year alone. As the Home Secretary knows, the Government have already spent more than £200 million of taxpayers’ money on deals with the French authorities that are not working. The situation is getting worse. Will the Government commit to transparency on how the money is spent?

On 9 August, I asked the Home Office to facilitate a visit for me to Calais so that I could scrutinise what the money was being spent on. I eventually had a response last month from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), referring me to the Foreign Office. I still have no substantive response. What do Ministers have to hide? I am conscious that I am being challenged about our position on the Nationality and Borders Bill, so let me make it absolutely clear: a Bill that breaches the refugee convention, that reduces protections for victims of modern slavery and that will not help the situation in the channel is not worthy of the Opposition’s support.

The Home Secretary has repeatedly made pledges that the route across the channel will be made unviable, but, as usual with this Government, it is all empty rhetoric and broken promises. The Home Secretary has blamed everyone but herself, and now we know that the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay) has been brought in to look at this. Can we have some clarity from the Government? Who is actually in charge of immigration policy? Is it the Home Secretary or the Cabinet Office? Is not the fact that another Cabinet Minister has had to be brought in evidence that the Home Secretary has lost control of this dangerous situation?

Of course, this would be the time of the week where we hear complete and utter nonsense coming from the Opposition Benches—for a change, I should add. Let me start with a number of facts. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) asks about the Cabinet Office’s involvement; that is because—to restate something I have said again and again—this is a whole-of-Government effort. There is no single solution to fixing a global migration crisis. He speaks about a visit to Calais; from my last record, the United Kingdom is not responsible for visits to Calais, but I will happily take him to some of our processing sites around the country.

However, let us be very clear. The right hon. Gentleman has stated yet again that his party will not support the new plan for immigration or the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is the long-term solution to breaking the model, to reforming the asylum system, to deterring illegal migration and to addressing the underlying pull factors of the UK’s asylum system. It will introduce a one-stop appeals process, which clearly he and his party are against; it will ensure that asylum claims can be heard offshore in a third country and it will ensure that those individuals who come to our country not as genuine asylum seekers, but as economic migrants, can claim asylum in first safe countries. That is on top of a raft of operational and diplomatic work that is taking place—not just in France, by the way, but in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Greece and Italy. We still speak to our European counterparts, and it is important that the Labour party acknowledges that Interior Ministers collectively have recognised a global migration problem.

I have said from the outset that this problem will take time to fix and that there is no silver bullet. The only solution is wholesale reform of our asylum system. Labour has consistently voted against the plan to do that. Instead of making practical suggestions, the Opposition are totally divorced from reality. They do not have a viable plan. The right hon. Gentleman constantly says that I should deepen my co-operation with France, while also criticising the Government for giving money to France to patrol its beaches. He has suggested the problem is down to reduced aid—failing to note that France is not a recipient of UK aid.

All the while the Nationality and Borders Bill is in Committee in the Commons, yet the Labour party continues to defend the rights of foreign national offenders, including murderers, rapists and those involved in the drugs trade—criminals, Mr Speaker. Labour has objected to provisions designed to prevent late submissions of evidence used to block removals of the very people we are trying to remove from our country, as well as to the one-stop-shop appeals process; it has opposed measures to tighten up immigration bail and to stop illegal migrants absconding. I come back to my opening remarks: we have a long-term plan to address these issues, while the Labour party will do everything possible to stop that plan from coming together.

What is the Home Secretary’s message to someone thinking of undertaking one of these illegal journeys, at great cost, as to why they should not take that risk and why it will not work?

This is why we are bringing in new legislation. These individuals are putting their lives at risk and putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers. I come back to the work we are doing with the National Crime Agency, which has the resources and is going after the gangs, resulting in 94 ongoing investigations, 46 arrests and convictions—the last conviction was made last week, of an Albanian people smuggler.

Nobody wants to see people risking their lives in crossing the channel, but it is time for the Government to swap sensationalist rhetoric and barbaric Bills for evidence-based policy. The fact is that a significant majority of these people are likely refugees—Home Office officials have previously acknowledged that and so should the Home Secretary. Regardless of whether they are or not, these people should be treated decently and fairly, not criminalised, offshored or warehoused. The Home Secretary’s Bill is picking on asylum seekers instead of people smugglers—it is desperate stuff. There is no silver bullet, but we need co-operation with our neighbours to tackle smugglers and a two-way transfer agreement that allows for families to be reunited here, as well as for removals, where appropriate and lawful. In other words, we need to fix the problems that Brexit has caused. The Brexiteers have made their bed and they should lie in it. The Government cannot legislate their way out of this. We know already that inadmissibility rules have made things worse, not better. We know that offshoring will cost a fortune, will not work, and will destroy lives and any credibility that the UK has left—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Gullis, you have been catching my eye far too often. If you don’t behave, I’ll have a word with your mother.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, as that gives me the chance to repeat that we know already that offshoring will cost a fortune, will not work, and will destroy lives and any credibility that the UK has left. So it is time for the Government to ditch the criminalisation and the other cloud cuckoo policies that the Home Secretary’s own civil servants are criticising, and start working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the independent inspector of borders, with their real-world, evidence-based and lawful recommendations.

I am going to restate that the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is going through Parliament, will make life harder for the criminal gangs behind these crossings—all Members should be supporting that. It means that people smugglers could face a life behind bars, and the hon. Gentleman should be supporting that. We will strengthen Border Force’s powers to stop and redirect vessels and to search shipping containers to ensure that migrants are not being smuggled. Importantly, this will break the deadly business models of these smugglers. In addition, we want to make sure that the UK is less attractive to illegal migrants. He claims that all the people coming to the UK are genuine asylum seekers, but they are not, and the evidence shows that. Even the authorities in France say that 70% of people crossing the channel and entering France, and northern France in particular, are single men and they are economic migrants.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The people responsible for this situation are the people traffickers, who sell false hope to the vulnerable. The only way we can address this is by working with our partners, allies and friends. Will my right hon. Friend join the campaign to ensure that this item is No. 1 at the next United Nations General Assembly?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am grateful to her because she has made one of the most intelligent contributions on this whole issue about people smugglers and working with counterparts in the world. I appreciate that Opposition Members completely reject relationship-building and speaking on a multilateral level, including with the United States; I noticed in particular the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) heckling earlier on. This is a very important point, because people smuggling and modern-day slavery is an international trade, and the Government have a proud history of and record on legislating, standing up and speaking out against it.

The Home Secretary will understand that heightened rhetoric is not a substitute for practical, sensible measures that help in reality.

May I ask the right hon. Lady specifically about intelligence and joint surveillance work? Will she confirm that we were told in the Home Affairs Committee last week that drones, including UK funded drones, are not currently operating along the French coast as a result of a court case in France back in July, which we are hoping will be resolved by legislation in France over the next few months? We need France’s co-operation to do that. Will she further confirm that even UK drones in UK airspace are not operating more than five days a week? Why is that? Obviously, the criminal gangs do not stop at weekends.

On France’s legislation, I have had discussions with my counterpart on that issue in the last week. Legislation is passing through the French Parliament because France has different surveillance laws. We have always been clear about that.

The right hon. Lady asked about technology. I have made a range of propositions to the French Interior Minister about surveillance and technology and the use of various other types of technology equipment—sensors on the beach and ANPR in particular. From my conversation and bilateral discussions with the Interior Minister last Monday, I tell the House now that he has accepted the use of all those.

Would the excellent Home Secretary agree that the sensible and humane way to deal with this problem is for the French to agree a returns policy? In that way, we could give immigrants turning up on our shore a hot cup of tea and ensure that they had warm clothing, and they could be put back on the first ferry to Calais. That would make the cross-channel route unviable. It would be good for France, it would be good for the United Kingdom, and it would be devastating for the criminal people trafficking gangs.

My hon. Friend has made a very important point about returns agreements, in particular with France. France assumes the presidency of the European Council next month, and this is an ongoing discussion that we are having with them. I am actively pursuing the issue, but I want to be very clear and realistic: it is only one aspect of the wider situation of dealing with illegal migration.

People are not just coming from France; they are coming from the Sahel, from Africa and from Libya through the Mediterranean route—this is a much wider issue than France. But obviously, returns agreements are crucial, absolutely pivotal, and they are one part of our wider plan.

The increasing anti-refugee, anti-migration rhetoric of the Home Secretary has left many of my hard-working constituents extremely fearful for their futures, particularly given the continued hostile environment created by the Home Office and her last-minute amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill that would allow the Home Office to strip ordinary British nationals of their citizenship without warning. Stripping citizenship from ordinary people robs them of one of their most fundamental human rights and defies international law. When will the Home Secretary stop this hostile environment? When will she stop persecuting my law abiding constituents?

I will be very happy to drop the hon. Gentleman a line with the full facts about the amendment, rather than responding to the rhetoric that he has just given.

Like the Home Secretary and many other Members of this House, I am the descendant of immigrants who came to this country legally. I am campaigning for more immigrants to be brought here legally who are at risk in Afghanistan.

What I cannot understand is how people who come here illegally—particularly those who, having done that, commit very serious crimes—cannot then be deported because they apparently have absolute rights conferred by various conventions. Most rights are capable of being overridden in extreme circumstances. If we are signed up to such conventions, is it not about time we reviewed them?

My right hon. Friend makes some important points. First, as a country we always stand by our international obligations when it comes to people who are fleeing persecution and in need of refuge. That is what the Nationality and Borders Bill does and why we are creating safe and legal routes. My right hon. Friend will be familiar with much of our work that has taken place thus far with, for example, British nationals overseas—people from Hong Kong—and the work that is taking place on Afghanistan.

The removal of people with no legal right to be in the United Kingdom and all rights exhausted is at the heart of the new plan for immigration and the Nationality and Borders Bill, because too many last-minute claims come through immigration courts and tribunals and prevent the Government from removing people who have no legal right to be here. They include foreign national offenders, including rapists and murderers—people who have committed awful and abhorrent crimes on the streets of the United Kingdom. I have to say it is quite telling that there is a great deal of lobbying from the Labour party to actually stand by many of these foreign national offenders and keep them in our country.

Plaid Cymru rejects the cynical framing of this issue as a crisis of numbers; the true crisis is a lack of humanity from a succession of Westminster Governments who scapegoat legitimate asylum seekers and refugees. In Wales, we take a different approach, with our stated ambition to be a nation of sanctuary for all people who seek support and flee persecution. Sadly, asylum remains a reserved matter. What consideration has the Home Secretary given to the lack of compatibility of her approach to channel crossings with that of Wales, with our nation of sanctuary and asylum seekers plan?

It is important to restate, for the right hon. Lady’s benefit and that of all colleagues, that, as she will know, through the new plan for immigration and the work we are doing with the Nationality and Borders Bill, we are crystal clear about giving refuge to people who are fleeing persecution through safe and legal routes. That is in line with the refugee convention. I spend a great deal of time speaking to the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration and other international agencies that will work with us on this issue. I have to say that the right hon. Lady offered a slight mischaracterisation of the Nationality and Borders Bill.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the robustness of her language and her clear desire to stop irregular crossings. Poland has very much welcomed international assistance; I recommend that she makes a broad and generous offer to her French counterparts and asks how many British police, Border Force staff and, perhaps, troops we can put on site—on the beaches in France—to assist in their efforts and arrest more evil people smugglers.

The Home Secretary spoke earlier about the importance of viable plans; does she still consider the use of wave machines in the channel to turn back small boats to be a viable plan? Does she still consider the sending of desperate asylum seekers to a third country, such as Albania, to be a viable plan? When will she stop using desperate asylum seekers as pawns in this Government’s culture wars?

I categorically reject that notion and the right hon. Lady’s points. She mentioned wave machines; I have never ever suggested or recommended them. I say that for clarity and on the record for the House. As for the other matters, the right hon. Lady has heard me say this afternoon—I refer her to my earlier comments—that her party objects to changing our asylum system, fixing a broken system and, actually, improving the processing of asylum claims, which would, by the way, be of benefit to the individuals who have come to our country illegally. We want to make sure that we have a differentiated approach so that those people who are in genuine need get the support they need and those who have no legal grounds to be here are removed.

Is there a danger that we raise expectations with the Nationality and Borders Bill unless there is an iron will on the part of Ministers to use the powers once they get them? And can my right hon. Friend not just tell the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) to make his own way to Calais?

I say to my right hon. Friend that there is no lack of iron and no lack of will when it comes to the resolution and determination of myself, the Home Office and Ministers across the whole of Government to deliver the Nationality and Borders Bill.

The Home Affairs Committee was told recently that the total number of asylum seekers returned so far this year to the European Union was five and of course the Dublin regulation, which did permit the return of asylum seekers in certain circumstances to other EU member states, is no longer available to the Government. Could the Home Secretary tell the House how negotiations are going on trying to replace the Dublin regulation?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question because it is important to recognise that Dublin was not effective and did not work, and the people who have been removed to other EU countries were removed because they were inadmissible to the asylum system, in the light of the changes in the statutory instruments that I brought in earlier this year.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will indeed be a significant piece of legislation to prevent illegal English channel migration crossings from taking place and it is shameful that the Labour party is voting against it. But it will be many months before that legislation is on the statute books, so what measures can be taken now, particularly in terms of security screening those who are attempting to enter the United Kingdom?

Let me reassure my hon. Friend that screening takes place, as does interviewing and questioning of everyone who enters our country illegally. So let me be very clear about that. Any notion that that that is not taking place is completely wrong. He is right about the Bill. It is passing through the Commons right now, but, believe you me, Mr Speaker, we will do everything possible to look at how we can accelerate the passing of that legislation if we need to, particularly as the Labour party has made its opposition to it so publicly known.

A few moments ago, the Home Secretary said that she wanted to welcome people who were genuinely fleeing persecution, but how can she know unless we go through due process with people who apply and claim asylum in this country? I am certain that she will also know that, per capita, the United Kingdom takes fewer asylum seekers each year than 23 members of the European Union. She will also know that we are not seeing a rise in the number of people seeking asylum in this country. We are seeing a greater number of people coming via the most dangerous routes. She will also know that, in order to stop people from taking utterly dangerous routes that we do not want them to take, she will need to provide safe routes because, without doing so, she plays into the hands of the people smugglers and she damages those people she says she wants to support.

I know that this is a statement of the obvious, but many EU countries, including France, are safe countries, which is why not only the British Government, but other Governments around the world, including across the EU, pursue the principle of first safe country. I am sure that, if the hon. Gentleman engaged with other colleagues across EU member states, they would all recognise the extent of illegal migration and the impact that that is having on their own countries as well. With regard to safe and legal routes, we are very clear—we have stated this in Committee and I have stated it many times—that we are working with UNHCR and the IOM because it is through that partnership, at a multilateral level, that we will form these safe and legal routes. They will be crucial partners to identify the very people—as we saw with the Syrian resettlement scheme—who are fleeing persecution and need refuge.

The Home Secretary should be aware of the very great anger of my constituents at the scenes that they see in the channel today and at the fact that these migrants are being inappropriately accommodated in a central Blackpool hotel. We hear much about France, but we know that these migrants are being held in both Belgium and Germany in a holding pattern only to be taken to France in the final 24 hours when the weather is conducive to a crossing. What steps is she taking to negotiate with both the Belgian and the German Governments to have a more combative approach to disrupting this pattern of delivering them to France?

My hon. Friend has raised some important points. He asked about the discussions taking place with France, Belgium and Germany. There are plenty of discussions. In the past two weeks, I have had discussions with all three of those countries in terms of the work that needs to happen. I should also emphasise for the benefit of the House that it is the EU Commission that leads on illegal migration and that member states themselves are not supposed to engage on a bilateral level, and they are all breaking out of that cycle right now because of their own frustration with the Commission’s inability to grip this issue.

My hon. Friend asked about the issue of accommodation, about which his constituents are absolutely right to be angry. As I said in Home Office questions, we want to end the use of hotels. As part of the new plan for immigration, the Home Office and others across Government are looking to deliver reception centres.

Finally, my hon. Friend mentioned holding groups in Germany, Belgium and France. France, in particular, is clearing the camps. It is literally seeing the type of patterns that it has seen over the last decade, with migrant camps now reforming. Those camps are being cleared on a regular basis, and one of the largest camps was cleared last week.

One of my constituents, who has worked for maritime search and rescue, and has been saving lives at sea for more than a decade, is extremely concerned about the inherent risks of pushbacks at sea, as they can be highly dangerous manoeuvres and lead to loss of life. He is concerned, as am I, that the Government are proposing pushbacks in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, so on his behalf I ask the Home Secretary: what legal advice have the Government taken on pushbacks; and if a migrant were to die during a pushback, who would be legally accountable for the death?

It is important to say that all operational work—with Border Force and the maritime tactics team—is based on Government legal advice. Extensive legal advice has been taken on the issue. Specific training has taken place on operationalising tactics, alongside all the investment and the resources that have been put in place. The hon. Lady will be well aware, through her constituent, that there is an operational gold command that has responsibility for exercising the operations, and all the authorisations and powers within the legal framework to deliver those tactics.

Now then, seeing thousands and thousands of illegal immigrants coming across the channel is not the points-based immigration system that I thought we were going to adopt when we got to this place, so will my right hon. Friend please confirm that the best way to control illegal immigration is through offshore processing, and getting the Labour party over there to grow a backbone and back the borders Bill?

It is self-evident. I do not want to enter the confused politics of the Labour party when it comes to migration, ending free movement and all of that, because Labour has resolutely voted against everything that we have done on immigration since the general election. The Nationality and Borders Bill is an end-to-end approach. There is no silver bullet. If there was, clearly we would not be seeing thousands of migrants entering our country illegally; not only that—solutions would have been found by now. Wholescale reform is vital, which is why we have the Bill. I am the first Home Secretary in 20 years to look at end-to-end reform of the system. I have worked on that reform for 18 months and introduced it in February this year. I urge all colleagues, certainly on the Government Benches, to back the Bill and focus on its delivery.

In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the Home Secretary was clearly not a fan of the Dublin regulation, so will she explain what negotiations are taking place to replace it? Will she also explain what we would do with individuals if we moved them to Albania or any other third country, and they failed the asylum system?

First, I apologise to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), because he did ask specifically about negotiations. There are a range of negotiations taking place, but he specifically asked about Dublin in relation to the EU. As he has heard me say already, that is an EU competency issue right now. We are having active discussions—this would not keep the Commission happy—with France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Italy, Greece, as of today Poland, and other countries. This is really important. They are having discussions with us because of their own frustration with the lack of progress in tackling wider long-term and long-scale issues around illegal migration, as well as returns and readmissions. All Governments are very much concentrating on these topics right now.

The right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) asked about third country offshoring. We will look at all options right now; it is right and proper that we do so. Not only that—we will look at resettlement routes for people who have entered our country legally and have no legal rights to be here. If they cannot be returned to their own country, it is right that we look at how we can resettle them elsewhere in the long term.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will make a significant difference in helping to address the challenges that we are facing, but does the Home Secretary agree that it is wholly unacceptable for the French authorities to turn a blind eye to small boats crossing, and does she accept that in doing so they are placing some of the most vulnerable people at risk?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of vulnerability and our work with France. Just last week, I had dialogue and discussions bilaterally with my French counterpart, the French Interior Minister. There is wholesale recognition in the French system and across the French Government that a widescale crisis is taking place. The numbers that they are seeing in northern France are unprecedented. I know that the Labour party thinks that this is moving responsibility elsewhere, but we have to recognise that the root cause is the upstream routes where people are coming from and the fact that Schengen open borders mean that there are no border controls across the EU member states. A lot of work is taking place with our Government. We are being very strong activists and leaning into border protections not just domestically through our own legislative policies, but in some of the EU countries that have not been doing enough themselves.

Facts matter, not sensational, xenophobic rhetoric peddled by this Government. Last month, the Home Secretary made the inaccurate claim that 70% of people who arrive in the UK by small boats are effectively economic migrants—[Interruption.] Well, no, because research from the Refugee Council this month confirms that that statement is inaccurate and instead shows that two thirds of people arriving here on small boats are deemed to be genuine refugees. Will she therefore withdraw her remarks?

In the interests of accuracy, 70% of people crossing are single men and they are economic migrants.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the UK Government who are addressing the challenge of illegal immigration for the first time in decades, tackling the people smugglers, tackling illegal arrivals and removing those who should not be in our country, with a Bill that will protect those in genuine and immediate need, and that Opposition Members have perversely and repeatedly voted against?

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head, because at the heart of the Bill is the simple principle that our immigration system should protect those in genuine need—people fleeing persecution and those in immediate need—and not act as a magnet for those living in safe places such as France and Belgium.

Putting your life and the lives of your loved ones on the line, in the hands of people smugglers, is an act of total and utter desperation—a last resort for many people fleeing war and persecution when no alternative is available to them. Does the Home Secretary agree that expanding the range of safe and legal routes into the UK is essential if we are to address the situation unfolding in the English channel?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier comments. Safe and legal routes cannot be delivered on their own. We will be working with international partners such as the UNHCR and the IOM, in the same way that we have done with the Syrian resettlement scheme, to ensure that we support those who are fleeing persecution. I hope that is a policy that he will support.

The Human Rights Act 1998 has handed power to unelected judges and it is clear that the creeping power of the courts is directly interfering in our ability to get a grip of our asylum and immigration policies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are finally going to stop bogus asylum seekers routinely coming to the UK, it is time to scrap the Human Rights Act altogether?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about asylum claims, courts and tribunals, the prevarication, the delays and the frustration. That is why we have the Nationality and Borders Bill. That is why we will introduce, as part of one of the measures, a one-stop appeals process because, as we know, claimants go back again and again, care of UK taxpayers. We want to break that cycle; we want to stop that. We will, through that Bill, reform immigration courts and tribunals to deal with cases in a much more effective way.

Can I just gently remind the Home Secretary that it is her party that has been in power since 2010? Is it therefore a matter of incompetence on behalf of her Government that only five people have been removed in the past 12 months?

The answer to that is no. Actually, it is a fact that we are developing returns agreements, including with India and Albania, and last week we were in discussions with Pakistan. Those are some of the countries that top the list in terms of failed asylum seekers and foreign national offenders. We are removing these people. The five people she refers to were removed because of a statutory instrument that the Opposition clearly did not support, which relates to inadmissibility with the type of claims that come at sea. That has come through diligent work not only with our colleagues in the Home Office, but with our counterparts across EU member states.

The Nationality and Borders Bill contains many similarities to what was used successfully by the Australians in its Operation Sovereign Borders policy in 2013. Can my right hon. Friend dismiss the comments in The Times last week that said:

“Ministers have not given details of how the offshore centres will work. But Britain cannot detain the migrants at the centres…as that would breach international law”?

As a sovereign country in control of our law making, nothing could be further from the truth.

Our Parliament is sovereign, and that is why we will work assiduously to ensure that the Nationality and Borders Bill gets through and gets Royal Assent. Then we can absolutely deliver for the British people.

The figures this year have tripled to 25,000 people making crossings. On the current trajectory, that is projected to increase to 78,000 next year. Last week, the Home Secretary said that she had come to an agreement with French authorities to say that there would be a 100% reduction in crossings, yet the French authorities said they knew nothing about it. When she says that she is having negotiations that will effectively reduce the number of crossings, who exactly has she been talking to?

First, I have been directly engaging with the French Government and the French Interior Minister. In regard to that comment about stopping crossings 100%, those were not my words but those of the French Interior Minister.

International people smugglers know that they only need to get the boats into British waters before their clients can claim asylum in the UK. Does the Home Secretary agree that we must therefore change legislation to allow for the option of offshore processing and return? What message does she think it sends when the Labour party calls for action in this place, but then whips its Members to vote against every part of the Bill that would make it happen?

My hon. Friend has seen the Labour party in action in the Bill Committee, where it is opposing the solutions that this Government are putting forward and our strong legislation to break the people smuggling gangs and ensure that we can find safe and legal routes for people fleeing persecution. It is also important to add on this point that when it comes to processing asylum claims, we must have a differentiated approach. Through this Bill, we want to end some of the pull factors for the economic migrants who have been masquerading as asylum seekers and elbowing to one side women and children—the very people to whom we should be giving asylum.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary when he says that the people coming across looking for refugee status or asylum status here will have their human rights downgraded if the Bill that the Home Secretary is pushing forward goes ahead. These are people whose human rights have already been abused in their place of origin. The Home Secretary has spoken in response to earlier questions about looking at safe routes. When those people obtain safe routes through the national agencies, will she allow them to settle here?

The point about safe and legal routes is that they become the pathway to resettlement. The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the Syrian resettlement regime, which a predecessor of mine and former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), led when she was Home Secretary. It worked with the multilateral system and third-party agencies, which is the right and proper thing to do. They have the expertise in identifying people. Once they have identified people and we have identified the right resettlement pathways and where those people can resettle in the United Kingdom, we can then bring them to the UK. That is the right approach, because we have to look at how asylum seekers are being housed, and the pressures on housing and on local authorities, which we debated about an hour and a half ago, have to be taken into consideration. The resettlement routes must deliver for the individuals fleeing persecution, while showing that the United Kingdom and its Government are generous and welcoming and that resettlement does what it says on the tin.

People across the country are rightly angry about the current situation and want action, so I welcome the steps that my right hon. Friend is taking and the legislation that is being brought forward. If we need new specific powers, she should bring them forward now to the House so that we can act with the speed that our constituents want, as we did with covid.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is going through the House right now. As I have always said, we look at all options, and those options are in the Bill. Obviously, if other legislative measures are required, the Government will look at them and bring them forward.

Does the Home Secretary agree that the narrative on immigration needs to change? As we have heard, 70% of asylum seekers are fleeing from persecution, greater numbers have been risking their lives to cross the channel in flimsy boats, and there has been net negative immigration with more people leaving the country than arriving. Does she agree that proportionately, the UK supports lower numbers than Germany, Spain, Greece and France?

In the interests of time, I refer the hon. Lady to the new plan for immigration. On page 6, she will see that:

“The UK accepted more refugees through planned resettlement schemes than any other country in Europe in the period 2015-2019”.

That answers her question about the number of people who are coming here.

We have seen thousands of people coming into the country. Many areas, such as Stoke-on-Trent, which has already taken far more than its fair share, are continuing to see increased pressure. Will my right hon. Friend look at measures to reduce the numbers coming into the country and ensure that there is a much fairer share across the country?

I thank my hon. Friend and all hon. Members from Stoke-on-Trent in particular who have been very clear and engaged with me and the Department on the whole issue of asylum accommodation. They have demonstrated, with their local council leader, who has been outstanding, the principles of fairness and value in how we engage with local authorities.

My hon. Friend knows my message on this issue: we need other local authorities across the United Kingdom to step up, we really do. I restate that the long-term plan—it will not happen overnight—is to move people out of the current accommodation that they are in. They are in that accommodation for various reasons linked to the pandemic and Public Health England guidance. The Government, across Government and with military support, will be building reception centres.

At the beginning, the Home Secretary said that she would like to hear some concrete alternative proposals from the Opposition, so I will give her one. In written evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Donate4Refugees suggested that the most effective way to deter channel crossings would be to:

“Allow people to claim asylum at our frontier controls in France”

and complete the initial stage of their application there. If it was accepted, the Home Office could

“transfer them to the UK on regular transport”

to commence

“the ‘normal’ UK process of dispersal accommodation and asylum support”.

Has she given any consideration to that idea?

It is fair to say that that proposal of using juxtaposed controls to effectively process asylum seekers is not something that the British Government or the French Government would entertain. That is why we have wide-scale end-to-end reform in the new plan for immigration.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that unlike Opposition Members who would have completely open borders, Government Members will, with determination, sort out the problem of illegal immigration? Given that there are so many persecuted people in Calais, does she agree that perhaps we should ask the United Nations to investigate what is happening in that country?

That is a telling comment. Of course, it would not be the United Nations in France; it is actually the role of the European Commission. Speaking to my counterparts across EU member states, they are somewhat exasperated right now about the lack of leadership on the issue, which is why member states are engaging with us directly. We are looking at a whole-of-route approach. I should say that we are also working with the National Crime Agency and with other countries upstream to look at how we can find some long-term solutions.

I think we should all remember why we have the 1951 UN refugee convention. It was established after the second world war as a result of millions of Jewish people being unable to seek refuge legally outside Germany and perishing as a consequence. The UNHCR, in spite of what the Home Secretary has said, has stated that it believes the Nationality and Borders Bill

“undermines established international refugee protection rules and practices.”

I am quoting from its website. I would like to ask the Home Secretary: what proportion of those crossing the channel do so because they have existing family members here?

As I have already stated, and the French authorities say this too, the majority—70%—are economic migrants. They are single men coming to the United Kingdom, and many of them—

If the hon. Lady would like to listen, rather than talk over me—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady would like to listen, many of them are also trying to deceive local authorities about their own ages, claiming that they are children, and the new plan for immigration will fundamentally address that.

The hon. Lady can shake her head, and I know that the Opposition have voted against age verification. On the point about the UNHCR—[Interruption.] If she would like to listen, rather than just yelling back, on the point about the UNHCR, safe and legal routes and resettlement routes are absolutely in line with the international convention on refuge. We are working with it, and we are having discussions with it. Only two weeks ago, I met the International Committee of the Red Cross, and I have been touch with UNHCR about these issues, because it is important not only that we stand by the convention—

The hon. Lady can shake her head, but it is also important that we deliver safe and legal routes in a fair way, so that those individuals who are fleeing persecution are given the support they seek.

Does the Home Secretary share my surprise that the Opposition have decided to bring this urgent question forward, because of course not only have they voted against the Nationality and Borders Bill, but they are also voting against the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which in ending Cart judicial review will make it far easier to deport illegal immigrants?

Well, I do not think I have much to add. My hon. Friend has absolutely made the case for voting for that Bill and for the reforms that we are bringing in, and the Labour party is behaving like a computer that says no all the time.

The Home Secretary has this afternoon put the Nationality and Borders Bill at the very centre of her plans, but her Department’s own impact assessment cautioned that

“evidence supporting the effectiveness of this approach is limited”,

and it went on to say that some of its measures

“could encourage these cohorts to attempt riskier means of entering the UK.”

Will she not accept the evidence of her own Department, and abandon plans that seem more designed to provide headlines than a solution?

Absolutely wrong. That is the wrong characterisation, quite frankly, of the Nationality and Borders Bill and of the new plan for immigration, which has a range of measures, including a one-stop appeal process, the ability for claims to be processed in a different way and heard offshore, and, importantly, the ability to ensure that individuals who are fleeing persecution are given the help and the support they need. I find it absolutely extraordinary that Member after Member on the Opposition Benches stands up and just says, on the one hand, “You’re not doing enough as a Government to stop illegal migration,” while on the other hand in effect saying, “What you are doing is not good enough, and we are voting against it.” I have made it quite clear from the onset not only that this problem will take time to fix—

If the hon. Member would like to listen to my response, rather than yelling at me—he is not even speaking in a low voice, just yelling at me—there is no silver bullet, and the only solution is whole-scale reform. That whole-scale reform has to address pull factors, it has to ensure that we have safe and legal routes, it has to have a differentiated approach, it has to make sure that we can house people in the right kind of way and it has to ensure that we have the infrastructure in the United Kingdom to support people on resettlement pathways. Currently, our plan and the Bill will deliver that, whereas under the current broken system, which has not been reformed for 20 years, we are not able to deliver our asylum system in a fair way. The various pulls are actually bringing people to the country illegally, and we do need to stop that.

Given that so many Labour Members would prefer us to be in ever closer political union with countries such as France, Belgium and Germany, does my right hon. Friend share my surprise that they do not consider those countries to be mature democracies with functioning asylum systems for the purposes of this exercise? Does she agree that people should claim asylum in the first safe country, rather than take dangerous routes across the channel?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and there must be some honestly about what is happening with asylum seekers transiting through EU member states and coming to the United Kingdom. The whole of the EU is safe, and all those countries, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other countries that are well known and have been referenced, have functioning asylum systems. We must break the pattern of asylum shopping, which is being provided by criminal gangs and people smugglers, and that is effectively what the Bill will do.

May I give the Home Secretary another opportunity to put the record straight? Last month, before the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, she claimed that 70% of those travelling to the UK across the channel were “not genuine asylum seekers.” However, analysis by Refugee Council, based on Home Office data, shows that two thirds of applicants have been granted asylum status and so are fleeing for their lives, many with contacts and family in the UK. Does she dispute her own Department’s data on that? Which is it?

First, I stand by the claim, as do my colleagues in Europe—the French Minister of the Interior and I speak about this frequently—that 70% of those coming across France’s borders and across the channel to the United Kingdom are single men. I am not going to restate that position any more, and I refer the hon. Lady to comments I have made previously. I appreciate that she may wish to quote the Refugee Council, but quite frankly there is a fundamental point here: the current system is broken, this Government are trying to reform and change it, and the Labour party is trying to block that reform.

I commend my right hon. Friend on her recognition that the system, as it currently stands, does not reflect the humanitarian instinct of the British people. Regarding our ability to intervene against people smugglers in French territorial waters, what is her view of Frontex, the EU border and coastguard agency, which we might expect to play a similar role to that played by the UK Border Agency on this side of the English channel?

That is a great question, and Frontex in particular has an important role to play. I have travelled across certain EU countries and seen Frontex in operation, but not in France, and not with our near neighbours and on our near borders. The Commission is under pressure right now as it has been asked by many member states to provide broader protection. That is out of our remit and a matter for the Commission, but it is vital that it steps up. The lack of border protection is having an ongoing, knock-on impact on people smugglers and on porous borders, and on people coming to the United Kingdom.

The Home Secretary knows that the UK receives fewer asylum seekers—these are not people applying via the resettlement scheme—per head of population than the European average, yet after 11 years in power, she cannot process their applications in a timely manner, subjecting them to further physical and mental distress, or even control our borders, meaning that thousands are making that perilous crossing. Will she stop blaming the French, the European Union, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the weather, the migrants themselves, and take some responsibility? Fix the broken system, because the Nationality and Borders Bill certainly will not do that.

On the hon. Lady’s ultimate point, the Nationality and Borders Bill is an important piece of legislation to fix the broken asylum system. This is not just about the Conservative party being in power; when the Labour party was in power it did nothing to fix the asylum system. We are tackling this issue. I appreciate that Labour Members will not support the Bill, but at the same time they are supporting a broken system, and end-to-end reform of it is required. Yes, I want to fix the system—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady can shake her head and talk above me, but that is what we are trying to do through the Bill.

In 2019 my constituents rejected Labour’s open door immigration policy. Since then we have been getting on with delivering our new Australian-style points- based immigration system in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party. Will the Home Secretary listen to my constituents in Consett, Crook and across North West Durham, rather than to the Labour party, and agree that we must now adopt an Australian approach to stopping the small boats in the channel? Offshore processing, turning them back—whatever it takes to secure our borders and stop the awful human traffickers.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He speaks with passion and conviction on this issue for a very good reason, which of course is that the British public are sick to death of this. They are absolutely, heartily sick of what they are seeing, and that speaks to many of the abuses that take place in our asylum system and the fact that the system is broken. Yes, processing takes too long, and yes, we have had the pandemic; there is a range of reasons why this is the case, but we want to address it and fix it and tackle it long term. There are no simple solutions, which is why the legislation is so important.

As it stands, the Nationality and Borders Bill will criminalise the work of the RNLI, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), acknowledged in Committee; it is an outrageous situation. I have tabled an amendment to prevent the RNLI from being prosecuted for its courageous humanitarian work. Will the Home Secretary meet RNLI staff and volunteers and adopt my amendment to protect these frontline life savers, who have sadly already been the target of abuse and attacks because of the Government’s irresponsible narrative and media headlines on this issue?

We have been very clear that we will table an amendment on Report on the specific point that the hon. Gentleman has made. What I would also say about the Bill—[Interruption.]if he lets me finish. Of course, the importance of the Bill is that it will not just bring about long-term reform but make life harder for the criminal gangs behind these crossings. That is something that should unite us all, and we absolutely want to make sure that happens.

Let me start with a quote:

“When a person leaves their country through fear, we consider that, as a general principle, such a person should seek protection in the first safe country where they have the chance to do so.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 April 2004; Vol. 459, c. 1684.]

I agree with that quote, and the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke agree with that quote. It is a quote of the Labour Minister, Baroness Scotland, in 2004—when Labour used to win elections. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that quote, and will she tell that lot over there to vote for the Nationality and Borders Bill?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. No one can dispute the fact that those who are seeking to claim asylum should do so in the first safe country. That is a long-standing principle, and it is one that we stand by.

Clearly, this country was far more successful in dealing with illegal immigration as a member of the European Union than it is now, with five people removed compared with 263 before we left. In her answer to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the Home Secretary was not very clear about the successor agreement to the Dublin regulation, so will she clarify who would be responsible for negotiating any such agreement? Is it the EU Commission or individual member states?

My right hon. Friend may recall that the Leader of the Opposition once infamously said that all immigration controls are racist. Does she agree that all immigration controls are racist, or does she agree with me that that demonstrates not only that the Opposition cannot be trusted on small boats but that a Labour Government means open borders?

I thank my hon. Friend. First, I think Labour Members have made their position clear, not just on legal migration but on illegal migration, with their resistance to everything we have done on a points-based system, ending free movement and, obviously, our plans now to reform a broken asylum system and tackle illegal migration. The Bill is an important piece of legislation. We want to make it harder for the criminal gangs behind these crossings; we want to make the UK less attractive and viable for illegal migration, which really is crucial; and importantly—this is something that the Labour party has not been supportive of either—we want to remove those individuals with no legal right to be here, and we will do that through our legislation.

In response to the British Government’s policy, the Albanian Government have said that Albania

“will never be a hub of anti-immigration policies of bigger and richer countries.”

Which other territories are the British Government considering for their immoral offshore migrant centres?

I am not going to provide any commentary at all in terms of other countries that we are negotiating with. It is for the Government to go away and do this work, which we are doing, and not to start speculating and creating false expectations around much of this work.

Crossing the English channel in an overcrowded flimsy boat has been described as the equivalent of a pedestrian trying to cross both carriageways of the M25 in rush hour. In terms of humanitarian safety alone, the Home Secretary asked for constructive suggestions. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man for us to have joint naval patrols with the French, so that if migrants are intercepted at sea they are landed not at Dover, but back in France?

Without going into operational details, we discuss all options. We absolutely do discuss all options. Whether it is naval patrols or alternative patrols, we are constantly exploring and discussing options. It is not appropriate for me to comment on the responsibilities of other Government Departments, but work is taking place with our counterparts and other Departments in Government.

I thank the Secretary of State for her responses to very difficult questioning. Will she outline what discussions have taken place with her counterparts in France regarding the prevention of small boat crossings, which have trebled in the past year? Has she impressed on the French that their responsibility is not simply a diplomatic one, but a moral responsibility and a safety issue, and that their abdication of that responsibility can and will result in injury and death?

Absolutely right. The answer is of course yes. Pressing the moral and humanitarian case, and breaking up the criminal networks, is exactly what this is all about. The gangs and networks have not flourished overnight. They are long-established, which is why we have to look at it from that perspective. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am doing that constantly.

In answers to questions, the Home Secretary has talked a number of times about age verification and people trying to cheat the system by coming in as if they are children. How would age verification work? How many other countries use it as a tool, whether in Europe or elsewhere in the world, to ensure that those who come are genuinely who they say they are?

This is an important question. My hon. Friend raises important points around the age verification of illegal migrants who pose as children. That poses wider security and safeguarding concerns. We have seen in previous years, I am very disappointed to say, grown adult men in schools, which poses wider safeguarding issues. My hon. Friend asks about other countries and the type of techniques they use. The techniques we are proposing in the Nationality and Borders Bill are used in many EU member states.

I have to say that a lot of the language used today in relation to those fleeing war and persecution—dehumanising them and demonising them—is deeply, deeply troubling. There are about 80 million people around the world who are either refugees or internally displaced. The UK is being asked to help only a small fraction. Will the Home Secretary recognise that under the 1951 refugee convention, people do not have to seek asylum in the first safe country they reach?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s overall tone. This is a lively debate for a range of reasons, and there are very serious and important issues at stake. The Government are very clear on moral obligations, humanitarian commitments, standing by the refugee convention, international treaties, and working with the right multilateral agencies to provide help and support to those fleeing persecution. We stand by that. I have said many, many times over the course of the last couple of hours that that is work we are doing and will continue to do. There are 80 million people around the world who are displaced or fleeing their own countries for a wide range of reasons, but there is an important point to make. The United Kingdom cannot accommodate everyone, which is why the international community also needs to do much more in terms of safe and legal routes—we are working internationally on that—and why we are bringing in long-term reforms.