I want to take this opportunity to raise three issues. The first is the closure of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs offices. Last week, we had a positive and upbeat debate in Westminster Hall about the future of the 30-odd new towns across the UK, but as I said then, one massive dark cloud hanging over the future of my new town—Cumbernauld—is the threatened closure of the tax office. It is not just Cumbernauld that is affected, and the situation is the same in towns across the UK. We are not talking about just trimming a small, obsolete office or two; we are looking at an extraordinary degradation in the HMRC estate, taking it from 170 offices to 13 regional centres and a network of many hubs, all with the loss of around 8,000 jobs.
Much has been said on previous occasions about why these plans are, to put it bluntly, absolutely bonkers. That includes the centralising of staff in expensive city centre accommodation, ridiculous assumptions about how far staff can travel, and the complete lack of any assessment of the effect of closing these offices on the local economy. Just prior to dissolution, the Public Accounts Committee published an excellent and comprehensive report on the subject, making not only the points I have made, but many more. Has HMRC listened? Not at all. Without addressing any of the concerns raised by the Committee, it has battered on regardless, even signing contracts for some of the new premises during the purdah period.
We need a halt to this closure programme, and we need an opportunity for this Chamber to debate the Public Accounts Committee report in full, as well as any response HMRC cares to offer. The 1,500 employees in my constituency deserve that, as do the 60,000 across the UK and the communities in which those offices are based.
The second issue I want to raise is the immigration rules relating to spouses, partners and their children. As Members will probably know from their own casework, we have among the most draconian family immigration rules in the world, with an extraordinary income requirement, and ludicrously complicated rules and ridiculous restrictions on how that income requirement can be met. Over 40% of the UK population would not be entitled to live in this country with a non-EU spouse were they to marry one; in fact, in some parts, including Northern Ireland, the figure would be over 50%.
The Children’s Commissioner for England wrote a damning report about the 15,000 Skype children, as she called them—there are probably more than 15,000 now—who get to see their mum and dad only via the internet, with terrible consequences for their wellbeing.
Back in February, the Supreme Court, while not striking down the rules entirely, did make it clear that applying them in certain cases, especially those involving children, could breach the right to respect for family life. A glimmer of hope perhaps? Actually, for five months, this has caused even more anguish for certain families, as the Home Office has told applicants that their cases are paused while it
“takes time to study the judgement”
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister managed to insert a commitment into the Conservative manifesto to make the rules even more draconian, increasing the financial threshold and breaking up even more families—a strange way to try to win votes.
But today—surprise, surprise—on the last day of term, the Immigration Minister has made a written statement saying that changes to the immigration rules are to be tabled to implement the Supreme Court ruling. The rules were not made available until 2 pm, when this, the final debate of the term, had started, so I have had just the briefest opportunity to look at what really are 22 pages of gobbledegook. At first glance, I am afraid it does not appear that the Government have moved very far. The treatment of these families, and indeed their elected representatives, has been totally disgraceful, and I look forward to returning to this issue after the recess.
The third and final issue I want to raise is the refugee and migration crisis. As Brexit continues to dominate the agenda, it almost seems as if we have forgotten that the search for safety from war and persecution, and for opportunities that cannot be found at home, still drives millions of people to travel to other parts of the world, in many cases towards Europe. Over 2,300 people have already drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year, and over 100,000 have made the crossing successfully.
The SNP will continue to argue for the provision of safe legal routes, the extension of the Dubs scheme, expanded family reunion rights, and participation in EU relocation schemes. Whatever our views, and whatever our thoughts on the best way to tackle this crisis, we can surely agree that this is one of the most pressing and urgent issues of our time, and we should debate and scrutinise the response of the Government and the EU as a whole not just now and again, but week in, week out—otherwise, talk of global Britain will be empty talk.
With that, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you, all right hon. and hon. Members, and all the staff of the House as restful a recess as possible.