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Immigration Bill

Part of Bills Presented – in the House of Commons at 6:41 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Shadow Minister (Home Office) 6:41 pm, 13th October 2015

This has been a lively, thoughtful and passionate debate. I should like to start by reflecting the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman with these two propositions. The first, with which I am sure all Members will agree, is that immigrants have made an enormous contribution to this country, which we should celebrate, not diminish. The second is that, in this country, we have a proud history of offering asylum to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people who have come here seeking refuge.

Of course there must be rules on immigration and asylum, and of course those rules need to be firmly and effectively applied. We also need to listen carefully to the concerns that have been expressed in the debate about immigration, and to take them seriously. But fairness is the touchstone: fairness to those wishing to come here and fairness to those who are already here. That is why every contribution to the debate has welcomed the creation of a director of labour market enforcement. I also welcome that proposal, but I say of its introduction: it is not before time. The strengthening of sanctions and the enforcement of the law against rogue employers are long overdue. As the Migration Advisory Committee noted in its 2014 report,

“the combination of non-compliance and insufficient enforcement can lead to instances of severe exploitation, particularly of vulnerable groups such as migrants”.

Those points have been powerfully made today by my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield and Andrew Stephenson.

Fairness and common sense dictate that we should not support the criminalisation of employees themselves for illegal working—a point made by my right hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart and my hon. Friend Imran Hussain. To do so would simply increase the susceptibility of already-vulnerable individuals to greater exploitation. A number of Members have already said that those without immigration status can include the victims of trafficking and modern-day slavery, and to criminalise them would run counter to the good work that the Government have done to protect such individuals.

I listened carefully to what the Home Secretary said earlier in the debate. There is no specific defence in the Bill in relation to illegal working. If that is indeed the case, perhaps the Minister for Immigration will make that clear when he winds up the debate. Otherwise, there is the risk of undermining the good work that has been done on tackling modern slavery—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central.

There is a plain common-sense and broader point to make about criminalising employees. If the aim is to come down harder on rogue employers, as it should be, it is a mistake and it is counterproductive to criminalise employees. To build a criminal case, it is important that those who are exploited have the confidence to come forward and to support a case. This measure is therefore counterproductive; we do not build strong cases against exploitation in the labour market by driving vulnerable individuals into the shadows. This is not an area where there is evidence of a need; offences already exist to deal with those who are illegally here, and in my time as Director of Public Prosecutions, this was not an issue where there was evidence of a need to provide for a further offence. There should be strong measures against rogue employers, but it is a mistake to criminalise employees—that point was made by many people in this House.

The same principles of fairness and common sense should be applied to other provisions in the Bill. Extending the restrictions to bank accounts makes sense and does not impose an undue burden on banks and building societies, but rolling out sanctions against landlords who rent to those who are disqualified because of their immigration status is both unfair and counterproductive. That is why the vast majority of landlord representative organisations, which I am sure have spoken to right hon. and hon. Conservative Members, opposed the proposals when they were introduced last year. What they saw as unfair was:

“Making untrained civilians responsible for the work of immigration officers at a cost to themselves and under threat of legal action.”

Those same landlord organisations also pointed a year ago to another danger: the potential for discrimination. That concern was simply put by them and simply understood by us: landlords, not properly understanding the task before them, concerned by the complications of immigration status and worried by the threat of legal sanction, will simply go to a default position where they will not rent to anybody who does not appear to them to be obviously British. That was the concern landlords were putting forward a year ago, and it is one that the Government acknowledged last year. That is why a pilot was undertaken in the west midlands, with an assurance being given by the Minister at the time that it would be evaluated before any roll-out. As he put it,

“it is sensible to proceed step by step and to look at the scheme after the first pilot…If serious problems have arisen, nobody…will want to take the scheme further.”––[Official Report, Immigration Public Bill Committee, 7 November 2013; c. 242.]

Well, serious problems have arisen, and a number of Members have highlighted the evidence in the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants evaluation of the west midlands project. I accept that it is a small evaluation, but the figures have been quoted and they are alarming: 42% of landlords were less likely to consider someone without a British passport; 27% were reluctant to engage with those with foreign accents or names; 65% said that they had not read or did not understand the guidance; and 77% of landlords were against the roll-out. In the absence of the evaluation from the Home Office, which should have been before us today, that is the only evidence before the House. There was a fear a year ago about discrimination and the only evidence before the House now is of widespread discrimination. In those circumstances, we proceed without any evidence as to effectiveness. I have a very blunt message for the Government: in the 21st century this House should not be in the business of passing legislation that has such potentially discriminatory outcomes.

I turn briefly to the issue of support in relation to those refused asylum. Currently, those with dependent children receive support until their departure from the UK. There is and always has been a power for the Home Secretary to issue a notification removing that support. That has been rarely used in the past 10 years, and the reason has been touched on in the debate today. In a pilot 10 years ago, which involved 116 families, it was considered to be a complete failure, as it caused immense distress and panic and considerable health problems, with only one family leaving the UK as a result and 32 families going underground without support, housing, and access to welfare or health. As the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions acknowledged in 2008, it is a failed policy, yet now in this Bill the Government seek to make that the default position. It will have the same result and the House should not support it; destitution should not be used as a means of enforcement.

In addition, the House should not support the proposals to interfere with the legal processes set up to deal with immigration and asylum. Tribunals have long had the power to impose conditions such as resident conditions and electronic tags. They are independent and impartial, yet this Bill proposes to give the Home Secretary the power to interfere with that.

In conclusion, whatever view one takes of immigration, this Bill is not grounded in evidence. Some of the measures will be counterproductive and will not deal effectively with the objectives underpinning the Bill. In short, it is not fit for purpose, and I urge Members to support the reasoned amendment or, if that fails, to vote against the Second Reading.