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Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 14 April 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 24 March.

“I wish to make a Statement on our new plan for immigration. The Government have taken back control of legal immigration by ending free movement and introducing a points-based immigration system. We are now addressing the challenge of illegal migration head-on.

I am introducing the most significant overhaul of our asylum system in decades—a new, comprehensive, fair but firm long-term plan—because while people are dying we have a responsibility to act. People are dying at sea, in lorries and in shipping containers, having put their lives in the hands of criminal gangs that facilitate illegal journeys to the UK. To stop the deaths, we must stop the trade in people that causes them.

Our society is enriched by legal immigration. We celebrate those who have come to the UK lawfully and have helped to build Britain. We always will. Since 2015, we have resettled almost 25,000 men, women and children seeking refuge from persecution across the world—more than any other EU country. We have welcomed more than 29,000 close relatives through refugee family reunion and created a pathway to citizenship to enable over 5 million people in Hong Kong to come to the UK. Nobody can say that the British public are not fair or generous when it comes to helping those in need, but the British public also recognise that for too long parts of the immigration system have been open to abuse.

At the heart of our new plan for immigration is a simple principle: fairness. Access to the UK’s asylum system should be based on need, not the ability to pay people smugglers. If someone enters the UK illegally from a safe country such as France, where they should and could have claimed asylum, they are not seeking refuge from persecution, as is the intended purpose of the asylum system; instead, they are choosing the UK as their preferred destination and they are doing so at the expense of those with nowhere else to go.

Our system is collapsing under the pressures of parallel illegal routes to asylum, facilitated by criminal smugglers. The existence of parallel routes is deeply unfair, advantaging those with the means to pay smugglers over those in desperate need. The capacity of our asylum system is not unlimited, so the presence of economic migrants, which these illegal routes introduce, limits our ability to properly support others in genuine need of protection. This is manifestly unfair to those desperately waiting to be resettled in the UK. It is not fair to the British people either, whose taxes pay for vital public services and for an asylum system that has skyrocketed in cost—it is costing over £1 billion this year.

There were more than 32,000 attempts to enter the UK illegally in 2019, with 8,500 people arriving by small boat in 2020. Of those, 87% were men and 74% were aged between 18 and 39. We should ask ourselves: where are the vulnerable women and children that this system should exist to protect? The system is becoming overwhelmed: 109,000 claims are sitting in the asylum queue. Some 52,000 are awaiting an initial asylum decision, with almost three-quarters of those waiting a year or more. Some 42,000 failed asylum seekers have not left the country, despite having had their claim refused.

The persistent failure to enforce our laws and immigration rules, with a system that is open to gaming by economic migrants and exploitation by criminals, is eroding public trust and disadvantaging vulnerable people who need our help. That is why our new plan for immigration is driven by three fair but firm objectives: first, to increase the fairness of our system, so we can protect and support those in genuine need of asylum; secondly, to deter illegal entry into the UK, breaking the business model of people smugglers and protecting the lives of those they endanger; and, thirdly, to remove more easily from the UK those with no right to be here. Let me take each in turn.

First, we will continue to provide safe refuge to those in need, strengthening support for those arriving through safe and legal routes. People coming to the UK through resettlement routes will be granted indefinite leave to remain. They will receive more support to learn English, find work and integrate. I will also act to help those who have suffered injustices by amending British nationality law, so that members of the Windrush generation will be able to obtain British citizenship more easily.

Secondly, this plan marks a step change in our approach as we toughen our stance to deter illegal entry and the criminals who endanger life by enabling it. To get to the UK, many illegal arrivals have travelled through a safe country such as France, where they could and should have claimed asylum. We must act to reduce the pull factors of our system and disincentivise illegal entry. For the first time, whether people enter the UK legally or illegally will have an impact on how their asylum claim progresses and on their status in the UK if that claim is successful. We will deem their claim inadmissible and make every effort to remove those who enter the UK illegally having travelled through a safe country first in which they could and should have claimed asylum. Only where removal is not possible will those who have successful claims, having entered illegally, receive a new temporary protection status. This is not an automatic right to settle—they will be regularly reassessed for removal—and will include limited access to benefits and limited family reunion rights. Our tough new stance will also include: new maximum life sentences for people smugglers and facilitators; new rules to stop unscrupulous people posing as children; and strengthening enforcement powers for Border Force.

Thirdly, we will seek to rapidly remove those with no right to be here in the UK, establishing a fast-track appeals process, streamlining the appeals system and making quicker removal decisions for failed asylum seekers and dangerous foreign criminals. We will tackle the practice of meritless claims that clog up the courts with last-minute claims and appeals—a fundamental unfairness that lawyers tell me frustrates them, too—because for too long, our justice system has been gamed. Almost three-quarters of migrants in detention raised last-minute new claims, or challenges or other issues, with over eight in 10 of these eventually being denied as valid reasons to stay in the UK. Enough is enough. Our new plan sets out a one-stop process to require all claims to be made up-front—no more endless, meritless claims to frustrate removal; no more stalling justice. Our new system will be faster and fairer and will help us better support the most vulnerable.

Our new plan builds on the work already done to take back control of our borders, building a system that upholds our reputation as a country where criminality is not rewarded, but which is a haven for those in need. There are no quick fixes or short cuts to success, but this long-term plan, pursued doggedly, will fix our broken system.

We know that Members of the Opposition would prefer a different plan—one that embraces the idea of open borders. Many of them were reluctant to end free movement, with Members opposite on record as having said that all immigration controls are racist or sexist. And to those who say we lack compassion, I simply say that while people are dying, we must act to deter these journeys, and if they do not like our plan, where is theirs?

This Government promised to take a common-sense approach to controlling immigration, legal and illegal, and we will deliver on that promise. The UK is playing its part to tackle the inhumanity of illegal migration, and today I will press for global action at the G6. I commend this Statement to the House.”

The Statement is apparently geared to what the Government describe as “illegal immigration”. In the Commons, the Home Secretary referred to “a broken system”—the Government’s words. After nearly 11 years in office, it is this Government who are responsible for the present system and its consequences, and it is time that the Government accepted their failings.

In 2010, the Government’s policy was to reduce net migration below 100,000. That policy—whether one agreed with it or not—was not implemented. We have never had an explanation from the Government as to why, nor will we have one today, because they will not wish to admit that it would have damaged our economy. It was certainly nothing to do with membership of the EU and free movement, because that was a known factor at the time when the policy was drawn up. That policy was clearly not drawn up with the intention that it would be implemented; it was simply because the Government wanted to attract headlines for sounding tough on reducing the number of people coming to this country. Time will tell whether the real purpose of this Statement falls into the same category.

We have a broken system because, over the last decade, the Government have been more interested in sounding tough to secure headlines than in addressing the broken system over which they now admit they have presided for some years and continue to preside. The Statement says that the Government’s current broken system

“limits our ability to properly support others in genuine need of protection. This is manifestly unfair to those desperately waiting to be resettled in the UK.”

It also refers to the system being overwhelmed, and to the

“persistent failure to enforce our immigration laws”.

Who exactly do the Government think is responsible for that failure which they have now recognised? The Statement also refers to the

“pathway to citizenship to enable over five million people in Hong Kong to come to the UK.”

We welcome this. Five million is somewhat larger than the 16,000 unauthorised arrivals detected in the UK in 2019 and which apparently

“limits our ability to properly support others in genuine need of protection.”

This assumes that none of the 16,000 is also in need of protection because they are fleeing war and persecution or, in the Government’s view, even worthy of protection simply because of the way in which they have reached this country.

The Hong Kong pathway is evidence of the need for safe, legal routes for those in need of refuge. Can the Government say how many of the 5 million eligible people in Hong Kong they expect to come to the UK? The policy statement says that

“an estimated 320,000 people [may] come to the UK over the next five years.”

How was that estimate arrived at and how many is it estimated may come from Hong Kong to the UK after the first five years? Can the Government also confirm that there is no restriction on the numbers of people in Hong Kong who are rightly allowed to come to the UK being able to do so?

The Statement says that, under the Government’s broken system, 109,000 claims are sitting in the asylum queue. No doubt, this is—at least in part—because the Government have allowed the share of applications receiving an initial decision within six months to fall from 87% in 2014 to just 20% in 2019. Why did the Government let that happen? Why are so many appeals successful? Are the Government going to tell us that it is all the fault of “leftie lawyers” or will they at last accept responsibility for the system which they now describe as “broken” and “collapsing”?

The Government have previously told us about pending agreements with France to stop criminal gangs involved in the terrible crime of human trafficking. What has happened to those promised agreements? The Statement is silent on that issue, though the policy statement tells us that, in 2019, 32,000 attempts to enter the UK by unauthorised groups were prevented in northern France.

The Government have previously referred to those who have arrived here through non-recognised routes being returned to the first country in which they could have sought asylum, or to another country. With which countries have the Government reached agreement to take back those seeking asylum who have arrived here through non-recognised routes? Is it their view of the provisions of international law and of the Refugee Convention that refugees fleeing war and persecution have to claim asylum in the first safe country through which they pass, and that they have no right to transit through another country to get to this country to claim asylum? Many would disagree with this stance is correct or right, but is it the Government’s position?

What safe and legal routes currently exist by which refugees, including children, can reach this country, following our departure from the EU and the ending of the Dublin arrangements? This is on top of the earlier abrupt cessation of the Dubs scheme. Is there any limit on the number of refugees who can come to the UK by safe and legal routes? If so, what is it? If there are no, or minimal, safe and legal routes, that is only going to make dangerous and unauthorised entries to this country, including through traffickers—whether by small boat, air, in the back of a lorry or a shipping container—more, not less likely.

The Government claim that, since our departure from the EU, we have control of our borders. Does that mean that implementing what is set out in the Statement is not dependent on reaching agreements with any other countries? Does claiming that we have control of our borders mean that, at all our ports of entry, the level of checks will be such that the likelihood of successful, unauthorised entry into this country is minimal?

Finally, how will success or failure of the policies set out in the Statement be judged? What will be the criteria, yardsticks and statistics against which the Government will make this assessment?

My Lords, the Statement claims to have taken back control of legal immigration by ending free movement. Not only can EU citizens continue to enter the UK without a visa, using the e-passport gates at UK airports, but rather than taking back control of legal immigration the Government have extended the use of these e-passport gates to a further seven countries. Before, citizens of those countries had to have a valid reason for entry, enough money to sustain them and evidence that they would leave again. As a result, thousands were turned away at the UK border every year. Can the Minister say what checks are now done on these visitors?

The Statement says that people are dying at sea. Is this not because safe and legal routes for genuine asylum seekers are inadequate or non-existent? How many safe and legal routes are open to genuine asylum seekers? Can the Minister explain how vulnerable people in a war zone can apply under such a scheme? What advice does she have for legitimate seekers of sanctuary in those parts of the world with no safe and legal routes to the UK?

The Statement says that the UK’s asylum system should be based on need. Yet the Government propose to set up a two-tier system, based not on need or the validity of someone’s claim but on how they got to the UK. Are the Government aware of Article 31 of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees? It states:

“The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees... provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”

Are the Government’s proposals to penalise those who do not use safe and legal routes—routes which do not currently exist and for which the Government have no firm plans or timetable—not in contravention of its international obligations?

The Statement talks about someone illegally entering the UK from France. Can the Minister say on which piece of legislation the Government rely when they claim that asylum seekers who travel through a safe country to get to the UK can only claim asylum in that safe country? Even if they had claimed asylum in an EU country, what mechanism will the Government use to deport them, now that the UK is no longer part of the Dublin regulation?

The Statement claims that the immigration system “is collapsing” under the pressure of asylum applications. In the early 2000s, around 100,000 people a year were claiming asylum in the UK. In 2020, it was 36,000—a reduction of almost two-thirds, despite an increase in the number of people crossing the channel in small boats. Is the reason that the system is collapsing not channel crossings but Home Office mismanagement? Is the reason for the increase in channel crossings not due to the fact that people can no longer claim asylum from outside the UK?

Can the Minister confirm how many of the 42,000 failed asylum seekers who have not left the country are in the process of appealing a Home Office decision, when, on average, 50% of those claims are usually successful? Of those who have exhausted the legal process, why has the Home Office not deported them?

This is not a common-sense approach to controlling immigration. This Statement highlights a catalogue of government failures, along with an illegal proposal to discriminate against those legally seeking sanctuary in the UK and a hollow promise to help the most vulnerable at some unspecified date in the future. The policy has thrown open the UK border to even more countries while slamming the door shut on genuine asylum seekers. I have the greatest respect for the Minister—even though she rises in an attempt to defend the indefensible.

I thank both noble Lords for their questions. I found them quite interesting. I always find the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, interesting. However, in a funny way we agree on some of the issues, although it would not seem so on the face of it. The last question that the noble Lord asked was: why has the Home Office not deported people who have exhausted their claims? In the proposals is the idea of a one-stop process in order that people do not keep on bringing claims, including on the steps of the plane or whatever the mode of transport might be, when being returned to their country of origin. The noble Lord asked why there had been an increase in channel crossings. It is due to criminality. There is a commonality within this House and the other place that we want to stop that criminality. All that it does is feed human misery and cause deaths, quite often in the English Channel. The criminals are the only ones who profit from it.

The noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Rosser, asked a totally fair question: what are the legal routes? The legal routes are not being proposed but asked about in the consultation process, in which I hope a lot of people will engage. In fact, thousands have done so already in relation to what legal and safe routes look like. Resettlement, whereby we have given refuge to more than 45,000 people since 2010, has been an incredibly efficient way in which to get to this country from the regions really vulnerable people who need our refuge. Obviously, if someone has a visa and the situation changes while they are in this country, that is another legal route. A good example of that might be Myanmar at the moment. If there is no visa regime in place in the country of origin, people can travel to the UK to claim asylum. But, as I say, there are the three obvious routes, including resettlement, and a consultation process is under way, which will elucidate the answers for the Government to consider.

The noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Paddick, talked about controlling our borders and leaving the EU. Yes, we make absolutely no bones about that. One of the reasons why the British public decided that they wanted to leave the EU was so that we could take control of our borders. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, is right; it is not necessarily any more about numbers but about having control over who comes in and out.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also talked about the BNOs. The estimate that about 320,000 people will come here is correct; there is no restriction on them. He also talked about people from war-torn countries. Of course, they are the very people we want to give refuge to. That was the origin of the resettlement scheme: so that people in Syria and the MENA region could get our refuge. We have now extended resettlement to include anywhere in the world where people might be vulnerable as a result of either persecution or war.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also talked about successful appeals. That goes back, again, to the one-step process. Appeals are frustrating the whole process of giving genuine people asylum, and it is important that we do not allow gaming of the system. We want the most vulnerable to be able to avail themselves of our asylum.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about pending agreements with France. Yes, discussions continue with EU partners and he will know that I do want to go into the details of that on the Floor of the House. He and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked whether we are complying with the refugee convention. Yes, we are. On the issue of first safe country, the system was established under Dublin. It is nothing new that people who arrive in safe countries should not then seek to come to this country if, in fact, they have been given refuge in a safe country. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, also raised the issue of inadmissibility rules. They are of long standing and existed under Dublin.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about the abrupt cessation of the Dubs scheme. The number of people under it was based on the ability of local authorities to take asylum seekers. We made it very clear to Parliament at the time—and Parliament was in agreement—that we could not commit to bringing people here if we could not house them within local authorities.

In terms of e-gates, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, is absolutely right. The ability to get into this country via the e-gates has been extended to include seven countries. However, if you have not signed up to the EU settlement scheme and, therefore, cannot prove your right to work or rent, your journey is very restricted thereafter. The noble Lord asked how someone in a war zone applies. This is why I keep talking about resettlement—someone in a war zone should be picked up within our resettlement schemes. I repeat: some 45,500 people have been given refuge since 2010. The noble Lord posited that we were going to penalise people who do not use safe and legal routes. The people we really want to penalise are the people traffickers, the criminals—those who make money out of other people’s misfortune and, quite often, death.

My Lords, we now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. There are only eight questioners, so if noble Lords exercise their normal discretion, we should be able to hear from everybody. We start with the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper.

My Lords, we must all deplore the tragic consequences of people smuggling and recognise the need to turn the tide of illegal immigration. Looking ahead, since primary legislation will be required to implement the new plan, I ask my noble friend the Minister to expand on chapter 9 of the policy statement, concerning the consultation process that started on 24 March. She has touched on this, but can she give us some examples of the stakeholders involved and that will be involved? In particular, can she tell us whether the IMO—the International Maritime Organization—is to be included in the consultation? I think it is the only United Nations body to be based in the United Kingdom with responsibilities for security, among other things.

I took the opportunity this morning of seeing how many people have, thus far, replied to the consultation. You can see the rolling number on the website, and it is well over 7,000 to date. As for telling my noble friend who might have replied, I could not see a list on the website. I probably cannot see that until the consultation is complete, but I will look into it for her. I take her point about that one body based in the UK and will see if I can give her any further information on that.

I begin by declaring my interest as a trustee of Reset and a member of the RAMP Project, as in the register. The Minister knows that I have deep respect for her work, and I am extremely grateful for the co-working we have done on a range of issues over the last few years. There is much that I welcome on the refugee side in the Statement and the policy statement. However, I have some very deep concerns around the asylum side of this. I would almost divide it into one half good, one half bad. The specific question I would like to ask today is this: under the Government’s proposals, the route by which people seeking asylum arrive in the UK will be indicative of the leave they are granted and the support they receive throughout their time. What basic support package, even if less generous, will be available to those granted temporary protection for two and a half years, to ensure that they do not face destitution? How will such temporary systems enable effective integration, which is one of the things that the Statement and the policy statement seek to achieve? I look forward to some robust discussions with the Minister in the future.

I have been most grateful for the discussions that the right reverend Prelate and I have had on this subject, particularly around integration and community sponsorship. For all that we talk about the laudable Dubs scheme, very few people—the right reverend Prelate excepted—have made reference to this. It will integrate people into communities very quickly and smoothly; it is such a commendable scheme. I thank the Church of England, and indeed the Catholic Church, for the role they have played in it.

As for accommodation and destitution, of course we are not a country that would legislate to enable people to be made destitute, but what we seek through the consultation is quite broad. We do not want to pre-empt what the consultation might throw up. For accommodation, we have Home Office accommodation that we have used, and we have had to use temporary accommodation throughout the pandemic. I will be very interested, as I am sure the right reverend Prelate will, in what the consultation yields for us to consider.

My Lords, if, as the Home Secretary asserts, the UK asylum system is collapsing, why is there such dysfunction in the Home Office that it cannot process an annual 20,000 to 30,000 claims—which is not overwhelming—efficiently and fairly? Is not the only outcome of penalising asylum applicants arriving irregularly—which is not illegal, so it would be a breach of the refugee convention—to create an insecure, impoverished group of vulnerable people who cannot be removed? How can that possibly help the situation?

The answer to the second question is that criminality is what yields the worst outcome for people genuinely claiming asylum. Either they do not get here because they drown at sea, or their money gets taken from them and they are left in a very precarious position. Therefore, the safe and legal ambition of the Home Office is to try to come down hard on criminals, while also protecting people who genuinely need asylum here. The noble Baroness asks about the claims, and why we cannot process them quickly. That is exactly what we are aiming to do through our new asylum system—through the one-step process—so that people cannot bring vexatious claims time and time again, including on the steps of a plane. We will be able process people much more quickly. This House has constantly pressed me on this, and I do not disagree: why can we not deport people quickly and why can we not process claims quickly? That is precisely what is outlined in our new plans.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is really time now to rethink how we spend money in countries where there is need for investment—whether in development or through the Foreign Office in relationship building—so that people do not feel desperate to leave their shores to come across dangerous channels? Maybe a real rethink needs to happen across government and all sectors involved in supporting refugees when they do get here. For those who have come here, will my noble friend the Minister consider, rather than not helping, skilling them up so that when they are returned home they have a skill to offer in the countries they come from, are not minded to leave their countries of origin, and instead stay there and build those countries up?

My noble friend makes two very important points. There is an assumption sometimes that asylum seekers are poor and without skills—that is absolutely not the case. Many are incredibly skilled. One of the conversations I had with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham was about how people can get straight into the immigration system should they have the skills we require. Also, on my noble friend’s point about spending money in other countries, not only is it a good idea to help people in their country of origin, many of them want to stay in their country of origin and do not want to come here. A pound spent in a country of origin is spent far more efficiently in terms of the number of people you can help.

My Lords, we should perhaps reflect on the comments just made by the Minister in the light of the cut to overseas development aid. I am sure the Minister is aware that asylum applications fell by 18% in 2020 and, in the year ending September 2020, the UK received 31,752 asylum applications from main applicants. The comparable figure for Germany is 155,000, for France 129,000, for Spain 128,000 and for Greece 81,000. Does the Minister agree that the UK is taking less than its fair share of people fleeing war and political turmoil—often related to our foreign policies—and people fleeing areas from which, during its colonial history, Britain extracted huge amounts of wealth? Perhaps the scheme has been affected by Covid-19, but are the Government looking to significantly step up the number to what might be said to be a fair share compared to other European states?

The Refugee Council briefing on this Statement, which I am sure many Members of your Lordships’ House have seen, is expressed in very careful, factual language, but it can be described only as a cry of horror about the policies contained in this Statement. I turn to just one area, that of age assessments.

Okay. On age assessments, how can the Minister say that it is fair to put 18 years of age as the cut-off point when it is obvious that people coming from war zones, having grown up and spent their whole lives in them, are not going to look like 18 year-olds who have been brought up in comfortable circumstances in a safe environment?

I will answer two of those questions. Eighteen is the cut-off age because 18 is the age of an adult, and we do not want adults sharing classrooms with young children, for example. It is important to assess people’s ages, and we will try to do so on a more scientific basis. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that applications fell in 2020. We had a pandemic and everything fell in 2020—so did returns. I am sure that the applications will be back up this year.

In the recent past, the Government have closed down two safe and legal routes for unaccompanied child refugees to reach this country from the continent—the Dubs amendment and the provisions under the Dublin treaty. How can the Minister reconcile closing down those routes with the claim that the Government want only safe and legal routes for people to come to this country? She has made that virtually impossible. Are not the Government getting very close to saying that family reunion will depend on the method by which somebody arrived in the UK, not the merits of their case? Surely we are turning the clock back in a most retrograde manner.

I disagree that we have closed down routes. The Dubs scheme specified a number, which was subsequently increased to 480. It was based on the ability of local authorities to take children—the noble Lord shakes his head, but he knows that. We did not close it down; we successfully completed it. As for Dublin, we left the European Union, so we were never going to continue it. As I said during the passage of the immigration Bill, all the routes would continue to be open and we are now in consultation on what our new sovereign borders and immigration system will look like.

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will forgive me for being specific and parochial, because I am sure that she will agree that any long-term immigration policy must allow for the free movement of people who have legitimate work to do for British employers. Those who grow our fruit and flowers have this year not been able to get the regular supply of labour on which their industry depends. I am particularly mindful of south Lincolnshire. The local television programmes night after night during the Easter period showed fields of rotting daffodils. This is a tiny thing in comparison with what many of my colleagues have raised, but it is important. Can she assure me that everything will be done to ensure that a genuine free movement of labour of people who have regular jobs to do will be able to continue?

My Lords, our new immigration system is skills-based. Free movement obviously ended under our leaving the EU. I empathise with my noble friend’s point, but the whole world is about to enter a period of economic challenge. It behoves employers in this country to employ people from this country to do the jobs needed in this country.

I know, but he dropped off the call. I do not think we have the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, sadly, in which case all the supplementary questions have been asked.