With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about an incident in the channel this morning. This is an ongoing search and rescue incident, but I can confirm that at the time of making this statement, tragically, there have been four fatalities. It would be inappropriate for me to go into further detail at this time.
There is a multi-agency response to this terrible tragedy. His Majesty’s Coastguard, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, South East Coast Ambulance Service, the Ministry of Defence, police and Border Force, together with French vessels, a commercial fishing vessel and contractors at Western Jetfoil, have responded. This morning, I have spoken to Border Force officials based at Dover and Manston who were involved in the search and rescue effort. I have also spoken to my French counterpart, the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. A full statement will be provided to the House in due course, once the facts have been fully established and the necessary investigative work completed.
I know that everyone in this House and across the country will join me in expressing our profound sadness and deepest sympathies for everyone affected by this terrible event. I know they will also join me in offering our profound gratitude to those working on the search and rescue operation. That very much includes those who are responding to the incident. Commander Dan O’Mahoney and his team work tirelessly, with military colleagues and other partners, day in, day out, to try to prevent this type of tragedy. They are undertaking immensely difficult work and we should all be extremely grateful to them.
These are the days we dread. Crossing the channel in unseaworthy vessels is a lethally dangerous endeavour, and it is for this reason, above all, that we are working so hard to destroy the business model of the people smugglers—the evil, organised criminals who treat human beings as cargo.
As the Prime Minister told the House only yesterday:
“It is not cruel or unkind to want to break the stranglehold of criminal gangs who trade in human misery and who exploit our system and laws.”—[Official Report, 13 December 2022; Vol. 724, c. 885.]
He was right. This morning’s tragedy, like the loss of 27 people on one November day last year, is the most sobering reminder possible of why we have to end these crossings.
We recently agreed the largest ever small boats deal with France, with more boots on the ground patrolling France’s beaches and with UK and French officers working together in both countries. The Calais group of northern European nations works to disrupt trafficking and smuggling all along the migration route and has set an ambition for a UK and EU-wide agreement on migration.
Since 2015, we have welcomed 450,000 people here from across the world via safe and legal routes, making these dangerous crossings totally unnecessary, but it is evident that we have to go much further, which is why the Prime Minister announced a new package yesterday. The package includes a new, permanent, unified small boats operational command, bringing together the military, civilian capabilities and the National Crime Agency. It will co-ordinate intelligence, interception, processing and enforcement using advanced technology, including drones. We are adding more than 700 new staff and doubling the NCA’s funding for tackling organised immigration crime in Europe.
The Prime Minister announced a new agreement with Albania yesterday. For the first time, Border Force officers will be embedded in Tirana airport, helping to disrupt organised crime groups and people smugglers who risk people’s lives unnecessarily. Early next year, we will introduce new legislation to make it unambiguously clear that someone who comes to the UK illegally should not be able to remain here. Instead, they can expect to be detained and swiftly returned either to their home country or to a safe country, where their claim for asylum will be considered. Late or spurious claims and appeals will not be possible, and once someone has been removed, they will have no right to re-entry, settlement or citizenship. This will act as a deterrent, and it will save lives.
As we grip illegal migration, we will create more safe and legal routes, working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify those most in need, and we will introduce an annual quota set by Parliament. We will work closely with local authorities to determine capacity.
It is not true that our capacity is limitless. We are already spending millions on hotels every day. People do not need to seek asylum if they are already in a safe country. It is vital—literally vital—that we end the illegal crossings of the channel. I commend this statement to the House.
I call the shadow Home Secretary.
I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement.
This is truly tragic, deeply distressing news. All our thoughts and prayers are with those who lost their lives, and with the families and friends who lost loved ones in the icy waters of the channel. We are also thinking of those who are receiving support and medical assistance, and who may have been rescued, too.
We all give our thanks to the brave responders and rescuers from Border Force, the RNLI, the coastguard, the MOD, our emergency services and the French authorities. Not only did they respond to today’s awful, awful tragedy, but they do such heroic work every single day. It is only because of their brave work that more lives have not been lost.
It was barely more than a year ago that 27 lives were lost when a boat went down, and all of us have warned and all of us have feared that it was just a matter of time before more lives were lost. It is, of course, why the UK and France both need to act to stop these dangerous boat crossings. The brutal truth as well is that criminal gangs have made money from those lives that were lost today; they have profited as people have drowned. Day after day, week after week, criminal gangs are putting lives at risk for money. The other brutal truth is that, far from our stopping those criminal gangs, those gangs have grown and grown. The UK and French Governments and authorities have failed to stop the criminal smuggler and trafficking gangs proliferating around the channel. Those gangs have created a multimillion-pound criminal industry, with lives at stake, and the action against those gangs has been too weak. There have been barely any prosecutions or convictions, and barely any inroads into the smuggler gangs. We have seen just three convictions a month for people smuggling, at a time when tens of thousands of lives are being put at risk each month.
That is why we have long called for a major boost to the National Crime Agency, because we do need major action. Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced an increase for the NCA. I am glad that he has made some progress on this, but will the Home Secretary clarify what it means in practice? How much additional funding will there be in practice for the NCA and specifically for the action on the smuggler gangs? How many additional full-time staff will there be? What is the sense of scale on this? I fear, still, that this is too low and too little, given the scale of the problem we face. Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced a small boats operational command? How different is that from the previous clandestine channel threat command, led by Commander Dan O’Mahoney, which has been operation for some time? Will it still be led by him or will it be led by somebody else? Will the Home Office or the Ministry of Defence be in charge? Is it correct to say that the Navy has been told that it will be standing down on 31 January? Will the Home Secretary also update us on the French patrols and surveillance? Has the 40% promised increase in patrols started yet? When will it? Was this boat picked up as a result of increased surveillance? If it was not, what was the reason for that?
The Home Secretary has also referred to safe legal routes. She was pressed at the Select Committee on a lack of safe legal routes for children trying to unite with family in the UK. When will she be taking action to address that, to prevent children who are seeking to rejoin family in the UK from making desperate journeys? She referred also to the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, so will she clarify something? We have also called for the fast track for safe countries and for the backlog to be cleared. The Prime Minister said that he had set a personal target of 117,000 cases to be cleared by the end of next year. No. 10 later said that that target was 92,000. Will she again confirm which of those it is?
The responsibility for the lives that have been lost in the channel lies with the criminal gangs. They need to be caught, prosecuted and jailed for the loss of life in the cold sea, and we need comprehensive action. We gathered in this House just over a year ago to lament the loss of 27 lives. None of us wants to do so again—none of us wants to be here again. That is why we need action, before more lives are lost in peril on the sea.
Today is a day to demonstrate our sympathy for the victims and the families involved in this tragic incident. It is a day to express gratitude to our hard-working emergency services, Border Force, search and rescue and MOD colleagues who at this moment are conducting an operation in the channel, in very difficult and challenging circumstances.
The right hon. Lady mentions a few points and I want to respond to some of them in detail. The small boats operational command is going to be a new operational command, which the Prime Minister announced yesterday, as part of our plan to go further on our action to stop the boats crossing the channel. This means we are setting up a new headquarters, the small boats operational command, in Border Force, with military support for specialist planning and operational advice. As part of that, we will bring in new air and maritime capabilities, including new drones, land-based radar and fixed-wing aircraft, and we will more than double our current permanent staffing levels, with 100 new staff at HQ and more than 600 new operational staff based at Dover. This is a sign that we are strengthening our resolve, strengthening our will and strengthening our efforts to do whatever it takes—as the Prime Minister has pledged—to stop the boats crossing the channel. It will improve our intelligence and information sharing with the French, and will improve and build on the co-operation that we have with our partners in France.
The deal that we signed last month with colleagues in France is a big step forward in our cross-channel co-operation, for we share a common challenge. That new arrangement will see more dangerous and unnecessary crossings being prevented. Last year our joint efforts prevented more than 23,000 unnecessary journeys, and this year, to date, the number is 31,000. That in itself is insufficient, but it is a step in the right direction, and the agreement that we have struck afresh with the French will go further to enhance our joint working.
The right hon. Lady mentioned safe and legal routes. Since 2015 we have made it possible for 450,000 people to come here via safe and legal routes, and that is a record of which I am immensely proud. These are people who have come from countries such as Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan. They are people who have come from all over the world, directly from places of danger—for instance via the UK resettlement scheme, under which people have been selected by the UN Refugee Agency from countries including Ethiopia, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. We will extend safe and legal routes once we have dealt with the appalling people-smuggling gangs who are risking people’s lives, as we have seen this morning.
The right hon. Lady talked about our track record on this issue. The Government will not stop until we have seen progress—until people understand that taking this lethal journey is not safe, is not lawful, and will not lead them to a better life in the United Kingdom. Millions of people around the world are fleeing conflict and poverty and seek a better life elsewhere, and our capacity in this country is not infinite. We cannot accept everyone who wishes to come here. That is a reality of the world and a reality of life, although the Labour party would suggest otherwise. I hope the right hon. Lady will join us in our strength and resolve to stop this problem by supporting our measures and supporting our legislation next year.
I echo the sympathies expressed by the Home Secretary, and the tributes paid to the rescue services. It is, in fact, a miracle that no lives have been lost in British territorial waters before now—and that is a tribute to the professionalism of Border Force, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Coastguard and others. Let us be in no doubt that the blood is on the hands of the criminal gangs who are responsible for this tragedy.
Of course, it would be best for the boats not to leave the shore in the first place. Can the Home Secretary update the House on any progress that may be taking place in discussions with her French counterparts that would persuade them either to intercept the boats if they get into the water and bring the passengers back to French land, from where they started, or, when they intercept people on the beaches who are about to get into the boats, ensure that they are arrested and detained rather than being set free and allowed to try again the following night? That is the only thing that will stop this immediately, which is what we need to happen.
My hon. Friend is right, and I am proud of the new agreement that we have struck with our French colleagues in this regard. There has already been progress. In the last few weeks there have been initial deployments of embedded offices under the deal, with the first full deployments before Christmas. The joint headquarters function is up and running, with regular operational planning meetings between UK and French law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and we are working together with French partners to achieve the Calais group agreements that we struck last week to deepen our intelligence co-operation with near neighbours.
I first thank and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) who so ably fulfilled this role before me.
I and my SNP colleagues send our sincerest condolences to the families and friends of those four reported to have died in the early hours of this morning and hope that it will be possible for the rescued to make a full recovery. We give thanks to all those involved in the rescue efforts in such perishingly cold conditions and those still out searching in the channel.
We want to end these crossings; everybody does. The reality is, as it has always been, that while safe and legal routes do not exist, and while people wait years for applications for family reunions, desperate people will continue to take life-threatening journeys, because they feel that they have no choice. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022, despite the rhetoric, has not proven to be the deterrent that the Home Secretary expected. Will she finally recognise that safe and legal routes are essential to allow people to get here safely, and that they should be expanded now, beyond the limited Afghan, Syrian, Hong Kong and Ukraine routes, not at some vague point in the future?
If the Home Secretary truly wants to break the lucrative model of organised crime behind this, she should bring in Dubs and Dublin-style routes and allow people to apply from abroad and get on a plane rather than forcing them to get in a flimsy dinghy in the depths of winter. It is cruel to ignore the reality, and dangerous to keep repeating the same mistakes. People are paying not only with money, but with their lives. Will she listen to the evidence, and, instead of just talking tough, act to bring in safe and legal routes for everybody now, because sympathy is one thing, effective action another.
As I have said, I am incredibly proud of this country’s generosity and, in fact, of this Government’s track record on extending the hand of friendship to more than 300,000 people this year alone. Those people have fled persecution, conflict and have come through humanitarian routes to find shelter and safety in the United Kingdom. I strongly dispute the hon. Lady’s suggestion that, somehow, our system is inadequate. None the less, the Prime Minister has committed to going further and ensuring that there is a legitimised, capped, quota-ised system of safe and legal routes, which will be part of our measures after we have tackled the issue of illegal migration.
May I add my appreciation to that already expressed for the work of those who were engaged in the rescue operation under appalling conditions last night, and also for that of the east Kent hospitals that have been treating the survivors, some of whom are still fighting for their lives, and some of whom, I understand, are women and children.
The House, on both sides, has rightly condemned those who are responsible in peddling the floating death that is the cross-channel traffic. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how many people, following the efforts of the Calais group and the United Kingdom Government, have been arrested and brought to trial?
I thank my hon. Friend for all his efforts in supporting the local community, not just following this incident, but throughout, because I know that, particularly in Kent, there is pressure on communities and authorities relating to illegal migration. There has been considerable effort and focus by the police, the NCA and other agencies on tackling organised immigration criminal gangs. So far this year, 55 organised crime groups have been dismantled and there have been more than 500 arrests. I know, having met and accompanied the NCA a few months ago on a dawn raid to arrest a suspected people smuggler, that this work is extensive, coherent and set to increase following the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday.
On behalf of the Home Affairs Committee, I express our sincere condolences to all those families who have lost loved ones. I pay tribute to the emergency services that were operating in such appalling conditions, and carry on doing so today, and I highlight the work of the RNLI and the fishing boats that came to the rescue of the dinghy. Many of us on the Committee have met Border Force officials, immigration officers and contractors who work at Western Jet Foil and at Manston, and we know how distressing these events must be for those people at those places.
Obviously, we need to wait for a full statement about what has happened, but I wondered whether the Home Secretary might be able to share whether she thinks there are any more actions that can be taken to pursue the evil individuals who facilitate and organise these trips across the channel in these dinghies. What more can the Government do to make sure those people are brought to book?
What more we can do forms part of the plan that the Prime Minister announced yesterday: focusing on the operational command and our resources at Dover, and working with the French. We want to investigate 100% of the small boats, and we want to arrest all of the pilots that we can identify. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 brought in new offences designed specifically to deal with illegal arrivals, and there have been considerable numbers of investigations, arrests and prosecutions relating to those new offences. But of course, when there is a tragedy like this, it focuses all of our minds on what more we can be doing so that this does not happen again.
I was awoken this morning to the news that bodies were being brought into Dover, and that the boat had overturned in the channel. It is the news that I, as the Member of Parliament for Dover and Deal, and people across my community fear day after day, particularly in wintry and cold conditions. That boat should not have been in the water in the first place, let alone in those kinds of conditions at this time of year.
Could my right hon. and learned Friend consider having urgent discussions with the French and arranging that summit with President Macron? The bottom line is that, in this case, the boat, I understand, was around the median line in the channel, and this is the second time we have seen such a situation. It is time for joint patrols on the French beaches to stop the boats getting in the water in the first place, and a joint security zone across the channel to make sure that incidents like these cannot happen and that we bring the small boat crossings to an end.
I thank my hon. Friend for all of her work over the past few years, dealing with this issue. I know that she speaks powerfully for all of her constituents who are directly affected by illegal migration.
The agreement with the French was a step forward, but it is not the end point. It will deliver an increased number of personnel and resources, who will be focused on the issues of intelligence sharing, interception, prevention, investigation, and ultimately the law enforcement response, so that the preventive element of this issue is strengthened. We will continue to build on the constructive dialogue that we have with the French, and I know that they share the goal that we have, which is to bring this problem to an end.
Death by drowning at sea must be one of the most horrific ways imaginable of meeting your end. I am sure that is something that is understood only too well in the nation’s island and coastal communities, where this news will have been felt particularly keenly.
The Home Secretary has told us, quite rightly, that safe and legal routes are effective in bringing people here—that is why we never find Ukrainians or people from Hong Kong in these small boats—so why does she think that the creation of safe and legal routes for people coming from places such as Syria, Eritrea or Afghanistan has to wait for the Home Office to get its act together? I have been waiting as a Member of Parliament for 21 years to see that happen, and I have not seen any sign of it yet.
As I said, we already have an extensive programme of welcoming people to this country through humanitarian routes, and I have listed some of the countries from which people have arrived. The Prime Minister has set out the plan, but it is clear that, fundamentally, we have to send a message to anybody thinking about coming to the UK that they must do it through legal means—through a lawful route—and that jumping the queue and putting their life and that of others at risk is not an acceptable way of coming to the United Kingdom.
The Home Secretary will be aware that there are plenty of safe countries in Europe that have fully functioning asylum systems. Does she agree that anybody fleeing persecution should claim asylum in the first safe country they come to?
That element relates to the Albania agreement that we recently struck, which makes it clear that Albania is a safe country, as the Albanian ambassador made clear recently at the Home Affairs Committee. There is no reason for people from Albania to come to the United Kingdom and claim asylum.
I join the Home Secretary and colleagues in expressing my profound sadness at the terrible loss of life and my thanks to those involved in the rescue, but the House needs to ask itself why mothers and fathers are getting in those boats with their children to seek to come to the United Kingdom. It is because they know that, until they are in the country, they cannot claim asylum. I know the Home Secretary is absolutely committed to ending this illegal trade, but let us start with family reunion: one of the reasons that people may want to not stay in France but come to the UK is that they have a family member here, as we would if our families were separated in that way. Does she not recognise that we need to address that and provide safe and legal routes?
The reality is that, of course, where we have routes and people have met the relevant criteria, they are enabled to come here. It is not the case, however, that any person across the world who wants to choose the UK as their destination can do so without legitimate grounds. We should make sure that we in the UK are doing our fair share—I think 300,000 this year alone would qualify as a very admirable track record of humanitarian support—but it is right that people should come here only when they have the legal basis to do so.
I associate myself with the Home Secretary’s remarks about the tragedy and commend her determination to deal with this issue. Last week, I and other hon. Members met one of those responsible for the Australian sovereign borders scheme to tackle illegal migration there. A key part of that scheme was to challenge the messaging at source used by the people traffickers. Their cruel and callous sales pitch is that Britain is a soft touch and that, when people get here, they will never leave. Will she look at countering that messaging at its place of origin using the intelligence and security services and all other means with the vehemence that she personifies?
The harsh reality is that many thousands of people are being sold the lie that, if they hand over large sums of money to criminal gangs, they will have a promise of a new life in the United Kingdom. The truth behind that lie is that they are putting themselves at lethal risk; sometimes, they are entering into unlawful arrangements and exposing themselves to exploitation; and they are coming here unfairly and illegitimately. That is not the right way to come to the United Kingdom and they are not welcome.
Like all Members, I hold out sympathy to those who died last night and thank those who risked everything to try to save life at sea; they should be thanked for that.
It is obviously correct to condemn people traffickers and all that goes with them. However, there is a reason that people make these dangerous journeys: they are absolutely desperate—they would not do it otherwise. Instead of the ritual condemnation of people traffickers, could we have something more positive about what we are going to do to support those desperate human beings, of whom the Prime Minister acknowledged there are more around the world than ever before, and make a positive contribution to dealing with the causes of flight in the first place—war, environmental disaster, human rights abuses and so much else? Condemning is easy, but holding out the hand of humanity and friendship to very desperate people is what we should be doing today.
I think we have to get a reality check here. The reality is that not everybody getting on a small boat—an unseaworthy vessel—and paying thousands of pounds to criminal gangs is a refugee. Not everyone coming here illegally is coming here on humanitarian grounds. There is considerable evidence that people are coming here as economic migrants, illegally. That is what we are trying to stop.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the actions she is taking. Could she update the House on what she is doing to reduce the pull factors that encourage people to risk their lives crossing the channel, and how she is ensuring that the people who take those risks know about them and know what they will receive once they get here, to combat the lie they have been sold?
My hon. Friend makes the right point. We will be taking further action to properly investigate and enforce against things such as illegal working, and my right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister will be leading a taskforce set up in Government with other Departments that will make a co-ordinated effort to ensure that we are better policing this issue. Ultimately, this comes down to deterrence and ensuring that we have the right laws in place. That is why it is vital that we introduce and pass legislation which makes it clear that, if you come here illegally, you will be detained and you will be removed to a third country or to a safe country.
On behalf of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I extend condolences to the families and friends of those who have died and pay tribute to the brave emergency services and rescuers.
Nobody in this House wants to encourage organised crime or people smugglers. Two years ago, a Home Office report suggested that deterrent policies are ineffective. Notwithstanding that, yesterday, the Prime Minister announced a legislative package and refused to confirm that he would not derogate from the European convention on human rights if he felt it was necessary in order to enforce that legislation not against people smugglers or organised crime but against asylum seekers. At the Tory party conference, the Home Secretary was reported as saying that it was her position that, ultimately, the United Kingdom needs to leave the European convention on human rights. Is that still her position?
The hon. and learned Lady talks about deterrence, and I disagree with her, respectfully. I am incredibly convinced that deterrence must be an element of our plan to fix this problem. If we look at other countries around the world, such as Australia, which has made huge progress in dealing with a very similar challenge, it is a deterrent element of removal that was integral to reducing the number of illegal arrivals. That is why I am a big supporter of the Rwanda scheme, which is an important element of our plan to fix the problem. I gently urge her to support our legislation, which, as I said, will make it clear that those who arrive here illegally will be detained and removed.
We all feel deeply for those lives tragically lost overnight, which makes the measures announced by the Prime Minister yesterday to break the evil trade of people smuggling even more relevant than they were yesterday. Let us talk plainly in this House. This boat did not magically appear on the median line; it was launched from a beach in France—a safe country. It feels like groundhog day, because a little over a year ago we were having a similar debate when there was an even worse tragedy. Following that, the then Prime Minister made a broad and expansive office to the French President for UK boots to be allowed to go on the sand and on the ground to stop these launchings. Could my right hon. and learned Friend make that broad and expansive offer once more to the French? It is patently true that they have not managed to stop this evil and miserable trade in human tragedy.
We are still establishing the exact facts about what did or did not happen around the incident. However, this year alone the French have been successful in preventing approximately 30,000 attempts to leave their coastline. Is that enough? We would like that number to be considerably higher, and that is why the French Government and the UK Government are working hand in hand to increase our resources and our joint working so that ultimately we have a meaningful, preventive mechanism in the channel.
Our thoughts and prayers have to go to those whose families have been destroyed by the tragedy that occurred in the channel. But our anger, and the anger of the House, ought to be directed at those who callously exploit people who are desperate, or simply people who are misled, for profit. The Democratic Unionist party and the whole House should be supporting the Government in their efforts, first, to prevent the people who are selling places on these boats from getting customers in the first place. Those people should know that, when they come here, there will be no advantage to them and that they will have to leave again. At the same time, what steps is the Home Secretary taking to ensure that safe and legal routes are strengthened for those who genuinely need to seek refuge in this country, and that more resources are put into them, so that there is no need for people to give in to the exploitation of these people smugglers?
The right hon. Member is right. That is why the Prime Minister announced yesterday that we will have a capped safe and legal routes programme that will come into force once we have tackled the issue of illegal migration. The right hon. Member is right to highlight the criminality. The criminal gangs are sophisticated and well organised, and they are working across several countries. That is why working with European partners is a core element of our plan to fix the problem. I was pleased with the support demonstrated by international partners at the Calais group meeting of Interior Ministers that I attended last week.
This is a tragedy from top to bottom, with dozens of souls huddled in an insufficient boat travelling across the world’s busiest shipping lane in minus 4° waters. These journeys should not be undertaken at all. Our thoughts are with those who have lost their lives and those fighting for their lives right now, but I would like to pay tribute to those working in the channel to keep people safe and picking them up when boats do capsize. The Home Affairs Committee met some of them in doing its work. I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that what we really need to do is tackle these gangs by going back upstream and going after the money of those who are peddling a lie by wrongly saying that these journeys are safe and that people can live a successful economic life here, as well as by targeting the social media companies that allow adverts to be shared online that promote these routes as being safe and an easy way to access the UK?
My hon. Friend is right that tackling the criminal gangs is essential. I struck the Calais group agreement last week, and I am glad we have all committed to the UK supporting resources at Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Many people arriving here, having crossed the channel, come from outside the EU. They travel through the western Balkans and make their way across the EU to northern France, from where they make the journey. Helping to bolster the EU border will have a preventive element.
My hon. Friend is also right about social media, which was also part of last week’s discussion.
I add my voice to the condolences to the family and friends who lost loved ones. I also express my gratitude to all the rescuers.
The refugee convention, of which we are not just a signatory but an author, was established at the end of the second world war following the horrors of the holocaust, which we are remembering here tomorrow. Will the Home Secretary publish the minutes of her Ministers’ meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees? Does he support the measures that the Prime Minister announced yesterday? In particular, does he think they will work?
I am very proud of our track record of welcoming people who are fleeing persecution and who come here for humanitarian reasons. We have welcomed more than 300,000 people this year alone, and 450,000 since 2015. We will consult on the future cap on those coming through safe and legal routes, which the Prime Minister announced yesterday, and on how that cap will be decided. We will incorporate lessons from our successful community sponsorship approach, pioneered through Homes for Ukraine, and we will ensure that, fundamentally, it is a decision legitimised and authorised by directly elected and accountable Members of Parliament.
What we have heard today is truly a tragedy. My heart goes out to the families and friends of those who lost their lives, and I thank all those who put their lives at risk to rescue them.
We talk a lot about compassion in this place. Is it not the most compassionate thing to make sure we smash these awful serious organised crime gangs? They are not just traffickers, which is awful in its own right, but murderers, as we have heard once again today. We need to legislate and to use every possible avenue to end the pull factors and to end these awful gangs. Will my right hon. and learned Friend please confirm that we will do everything we can to prevent this awful crime and this awful tragedy from happening again?
The Prime Minister set out his unambiguous resolve yesterday. I am working hand in hand with him on the plan. We will do whatever it takes. We must make it clear to people who are thinking about embarking on a very dangerous and illegal journey that they must not get on to a makeshift vessel, put their own life at risk and let themselves be exploited by criminal gangs.
Everyone is expressing their condolences to the loved ones of those who lost their lives, but if I understand her correctly, the Home Secretary is saying that the people who were pulled alive from the channel last night, because they came from a safe country, are not welcome in the United Kingdom. Is that really her position?
I am not commenting right now on the specific facts of the incident. This is not a time for politics. This is a time to express gratitude to the brave and heroic emergency service workers, who worked in very challenging circumstances, and to express our condolences to those who have been bereaved, but it is also a time to strengthen our resolve to make sure this does not happen again and to successfully combat the evil trade of people smuggling.
What an unpleasant question.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. I praise the emergency services and commiserate with all those affected by this terrible drowning at sea. May I pick up on a point from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton)? He rightly says we have to stop this on the beaches if we cannot stop it before. My right hon. Friend mentions technology. Surely, with satellites, drones and a well co-ordinated operation with French and British personnel along the French coast, we can stop this. Is that the case, or are there still not enough resources, drones and satellites to pick up on where boats are being launched from?
We are increasing the amount of technological capability available to Border Force. We are doubling the funding for the National Crime Agency, which will now be embedded in the operational command at Dover to ensure that drone technology, military capability and sophisticated information sharing can properly take place across the channel, so that we can build the evidence not only to prosecute any illegal activity, but also to prevent it.
Following this truly tragic incident, my thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims who were desperately seeking to cross the icy waters of the channel in a small boat, given the lack of safe and secure routes. I pay tribute to the incredible work of the rescue services who were risking their lives. Does the Home Secretary agree with me that the RNLI, which is staffed by volunteers and funded by donations, is one of the most selfless institutions in our country and deserves our full support?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in the way he describes the work of the RNLI. It is an incredible organisation, which responds first in many instances to incidents of crisis and emergency, saving lives and helping people in distress. It has my full support.
First, I commend the Home Secretary on the work she has been doing with our neighbours and allies to tackle this issue. My constituent, Soheila Nowlan, a successful academic of international standing, came to the UK as a refugee from Iran a couple of years ago. For her family in Iran, there is no safe and legal route by which they can come to join her in the UK, but should they travel overland and come in a small boat, they stand around a 98% chance under our laws of being granted asylum in the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the success of our ambition to break the model of the people smugglers, by ensuring that those who come to the UK by irregular means are not successful, depends entirely on the existence of a safe and legal route, which, if it has not been used, can in our law count against those who come here by irregular means?
I thank my hon. Friend for all his work and his previous track record, before he came to this place, in supporting people coming to this country. The reality is that the UK will continue to provide safe and legal routes to those refugees in most need, but the practical truth is that there are 100 million people around the globe who would like to leave their country of residence and potentially come to the United Kingdom. That is simply not possible. Therefore, we need an element of control—combined with compassion and generosity but, yes, control, fairness and legitimacy—that underpins any kind of humanitarian arrangement that we have. I am very proud of the track record that this country and this Government have demonstrated over recent years.
Order. Before I call the next question, I would be grateful if the Home Secretary would address the Chair. When she addresses the House with her back firmly to the Chair, it is not only discourteous but we cannot hear her. It would be very good if she were to face the right way. I must also say that we have time this afternoon, but we could go a little faster. This is a sombre and serious matter to be considered, but that does not mean it cannot be done at a pace.
It is indeed a very dark day, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was in the House last year when we marked the deaths of 27 people in the channel, and I heard very similar calls from the then Home Secretary about smashing criminal gangs; however, 45,000 people have since taken the perilous journey to the UK. The Government’s approach does not work and it pushes people into the hands of people traffickers, so when will the Home Secretary acknowledge that to avoid more tragedy she has to create safe and legal routes for people to come to UK?
We have made some progress in tackling the illegal crime gangs. Since the passing of the Nationality and Borders Act, the number of prosecutions for new offences has increased considerably by more than 200%. That Act created new offences relating to people smuggling—illegal arrival and entry and facilitation—and both those new offences have been used considerably by our enforcement agencies.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. My constituents would like to add their prayers for those affected and we thank the emergency services.
Somebody sold a desperate person a passage in a boat. Somebody encouraged that person to get into a boat on a freezing-cold night when the seas were an appalling temperature. Somebody did that knowing that the person they took the money off—thousands of pounds—could die. That is where our anger should be directed, and it rightly is. Will the Home Secretary update the House on what more she can do to work with the French in the camps to provide practical advice and some messages to warn people about the dangers of making the journey? When does she think that kind of work can start?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the need for greater action to disrupt the criminal gangs, particularly upstream and in respect of how they advertise to and communicate with the people they exploit. They make considerable use of social media to propagate a lie and fuel this illegal trade. They are shameless and, indeed, reckless in their behaviour, selling a journey in life-threatening conditions, putting people’s lives at risk and causing nothing but misery. They must be stopped.
I think all our hearts were broken when we saw the news this morning, and grateful for the emergency services being able to save some of the people in the boats. Further to the question from the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), I should point out that 15% of those in the small boats are from Iran, and many of us throughout the House have expressed solidarity with the people there who are speaking up for their basic rights and facing persecution, whether for their religious or political views. The Home Secretary needs to set out exactly—we need a straight answer to this question—how one of those brave people in Tehran or Mashhad, where people have been executed this week, can come to the UK safely to be with a family member. Explain, Home Secretary, because they deserve that. You cannot simply say, “Sorry, we’re full up.”
As I have said on several occasions, I am very proud of the track record we have demonstrated not only since 2015 but this year, with more than 3,000 people coming here for humanitarian reasons. There are several mechanisms by which people can get here, whether that is through the UN resettlement scheme, family reunion or the mandate resettlement scheme. Those people who are genuinely in need and who meet our criteria will be supported in the United Kingdom. That is something I am proud of.
Peterborough supports more asylum seekers and refugees than any other city or place in the east of England. We are a caring city and this tragedy in the English channel will hit communities in Peterborough hard, but does this awful incident not demonstrate the need, on compassionate grounds, to stop the boats, destroy the business model of the people smugglers and save lives?
That is why we will bring forward legislation to make it clear that if someone comes here on a small boat illegally, they will be detained and removed. That is not just the right thing to do; that is the compassionate thing to do.
The Home Secretary herself has just described this journey as “a lethally dangerous endeavour”. How desperate does she think the people making the journey must have been to attempt it? The weasel words she has been using about dealing with safe and legal routes after dealing with the people smugglers are shameful. The UK Government’s approach to this issue is dehumanising and wholly inadequate. I ask her again to think very carefully about why these people are making the journey and about how safe and legal routes can be provided now.
I am not going to lower myself to the standards that the hon. Lady invites me to by making this about political point scoring. This is, as I have said, a human tragedy that transcends politics. We are all united in our sympathy and condolences, and we want to make sure it never happens again. That is the aim of this Government and it should be the aim of the hon. Lady.
Today’s awful tragedy is one that many of us predicted. Members are keen to blame gangs, but it is Members in this place, with their zeal to showcase their altruism, who are preventing us from stopping the boats on their perilous journeys by not replacing aspects of the Human Rights Act that do not work for us or even exiting the ECHR. Let us remember that these are people who willingly put themselves in harm’s way. The criminal gangs would disappear if the demand for their services went. Home Secretary, when will we make the Rwanda plan work?
As my hon. Friend knows, I believe in the groundbreaking partnership that the United Kingdom has struck with Rwanda. I believe that it is a mutually beneficial arrangement, it is compassionate, it is pragmatic and it will be a big step forward in solving the challenge with which we are grappling. It is currently in the courts. We are awaiting a judgment from the High Court that is due very soon.
The Home Secretary may recall that the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), signed an agreement on a Franco-British operational research unit to combat migrant smuggling in the channel with the French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin. There was a fanfare announcement, a little like we had yesterday, and that was on 12 July 2020. Does the Home Secretary consider that agreement to be a failure?
In 2021, the joint efforts of France and the UK prevented more than 23,000 dangerous and unnecessary crossings. This year alone, the figure is 31,000. The UK-France joint intelligence cell has so far dismantled 55 organised crime gangs and secured more than 500 arrests. We would, of course, like to go further, but that is a good start.
This country has led the way in providing safe and legal routes for those in genuine need, most notably those fleeing Ukraine and Afghanistan. However, does the Home Secretary agree that it would be completely impractical for asylum claims to be made directly to the UK from any country in the world, as our system would simply be crushed under the weight of tens of millions of claims from economic migrants from every corner of the world?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are more than 100 million people worldwide who are struggling. While we will do everything we can to support those countries through development, co-operation and Foreign Office work—there are so many ways in which the UK is a great ally and partner of many, many countries around the world—it is simply impractical, unsustainable and fundamentally unfair to have the kind of system to which he alludes.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister rather skirted around the issue of whether the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had been consulted on this plan. The UNHCR has since described the Home Secretary’s plan as “a troubling step away” from a “commendable humanitarian tradition”—one that would
“undermine the global refugee system at large and would be a violation of International…Law.”
Why did the Home Secretary not consult the UNHCR and why is she setting out to undermine the international system of refugee protection?
I know that we disagreed about leaving the European Union, but one reason why I voted to leave the EU was to take back control of our borders and our migration policy—to restore sovereignty and supremacy to this Parliament on how our migration policy should be run. It is for this Parliament and the directly elected people running this country to make the decision on how we should run our migration policy, who should come here and how we should apply our humanitarian arrangements.
I share the shock and grief of the whole House at this tragedy.
I was elected three years ago. In my maiden speech, I talked about the issue of child reunion and unaccompanied asylum seeking children seeking refuge here, in the context of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. I was told by Ministers that the issue would be addressed in the Nationality and Borders Bill, but such provisions were rejected.
In the light of this tragedy and the shocking situation of many unaccompanied asylum seeking children having to get into boats or being stranded in camps, will the Secretary of State look at the issue of the relatively small numbers of such children who have family members here and could have a safe and legal route, but currently do not?
Whenever unaccompanied asylum seeking children arrive in the UK, they are provided considerable levels of support, funding and care. We ensure that their safeguarding is a priority for them and for us.
Rhetoric on this issue is so very important, and that is why what I have heard is so disappointing. This morning, I expected the Home Secretary to tell us about the incident—how many people were still missing and how the survivors were being supported. Instead, we have heard words such as “enforcement” and “deterrent”.
We have heard a lot about safe and legal routes this morning. I have a constituent whose sister and brother were in Afghanistan. The brother, unfortunately, was executed by the Taliban two months ago for the work he did with British forces. The sister worked with an NGO on women’s rights and girls’ education. The sister does not qualify for any safe and legal routes. How should she seek asylum in the UK?
We have set up two specific schemes for Afghans. There is the Afghan relocation and assistance policy, or ARAP, which is an uncapped relocation scheme for Afghans who directly supported the United Kingdom Government and military efforts in Afghanistan. So far, approximately 11,000 people have arrived in the UK through that scheme. Many more have come through other schemes relating to Afghanistan.
This truly heartbreaking tragedy comes immediately after the Prime Minister’s tub thumping “Stop the boats” statement yesterday. This Government’s policy is cruel, inhumane and puts people at risk of danger, exploitation and, as we tragically saw last night, death. It is clear that to stop deaths in the channel we need safe routes for claiming asylum. Will the Home Secretary consider proposals being made by a number of agencies, including the Public and Commercial Services Union—the Home Office’s union—such as a safe passage visa? Will she meet PCS representatives to discuss that and other effective and humane recommendations in its “Safe Passage for Refugees” report?
What is cruel and inhumane is desperate people being conned—it is a trick—into handing over large sums of money and making a treacherous journey on land and sea, in the fruitless hope of a better life in the United Kingdom. That is not lawful, it is not moral and it must be stopped.
Finally, I call Jim Shannon.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. First, may I offer my sympathies to the families who grieve today for their loved ones? May I also thank the Secretary of State for her endeavours to find a solution to the problems? Yesterday, the Prime Minister referred to a deal with the French that will put
“more boots on the ground patrolling their beaches”—[Official Report, 13 December 2022; Vol. 724, c. 885.]
and more boats in the sea. What teeth are behind the patrols to get at the organised criminal gangs and put them in prison, no matter the level of their participation or involvement in these disgusting money-making schemes that have led to death, injury and pain for innocent people?
There is a huge amount of operational collaboration pursuant to the new deal that I agreed with my French counterpart last month. It will see, for the first time ever, UK Border Force officers side by side with their French equivalents, looking and analysing, sharing intelligence and working hand in hand to combat, prevent and intercept the departures from France.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Home Secretary did not address my question about the accuracy of what the Prime Minister said in the House yesterday. Obviously, it matters for us to have accurate information. In response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), the Prime Minister said that his target was to eliminate the “initial asylum backlog” of “117,000”. An hour later, No. 10 said that the target was 92,000. The Home Secretary will probably be aware that we assume the 117,000 is the figure that applies to the backlog of initial main applications—including dependants, the figure for the backlog is in fact 143,000. So we do need some clarity on whether this is the 117,000 that the Prime Minister told the House, the 92,000 or some other figure. Obviously, if the Prime Minister has not given accurate information to the House, we would expect that to be clarified and corrected swiftly by No. 10.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her point of order, and I have no doubt that it has been heard by the Home Secretary and her immediate colleagues. As the right hon. Lady knows, the accuracy, or otherwise, of what is said by any Member of this House is not a matter for the Chair. But it is a matter for the Chair to ensure that if there has been a discrepancy in the presentation of statistics, it should be corrected at the earliest opportunity. I have every confidence that, the right hon. Lady having pointed out this alleged discrepancy in the presentation of statistics, the matter will be taken seriously by the Ministers on the Treasury Bench. If there is a discrepancy to be corrected, I have every confidence that that will be done in a timely fashion. [Interruption.] No, I do not need any further advice, thank you; I think I have put it quite clearly.
Green Jobs (Definition and Promotion) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Tim Farron, supported by Ed Davey, Daisy Cooper, Wendy Chamberlain and Wera Hobhouse, presented a Bill to define the term “green jobs”; to require the Secretary of State to publish a strategy for their creation, including setting targets relating to green jobs, skills, and training; to require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on performance in implementing that strategy; to require the Secretary of State to publish a plan to increase take-up of National Vocational Qualification courses related to low-carbon services; to establish a Commission to advise the Government and local authorities on increasing the availability of jobs in the low-carbon economy, including in areas with high levels of deprivation, and on ensuring access to good quality green jobs across the United Kingdom; to require the Commission to consult workers, communities, non-governmental organisations, businesses, and industry representatives; to require local authorities to report to the Commission on the availability in green jobs in their areas; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March 2023, and to be printed (Bill 217).