I am very grateful to have the opportunity to bring this issue to the House.
Like my immigrants, my constituent Alberta came to this country with the dream of a better life. Hers was to serve the NHS as a midwife. Aged 19, she was studying health and social care at college. Life was going well—so well, in fact, that she used her free time to help others as a mentor for young children at her local primary school. Arriving in Tottenham from Ghana in 2012, she was a shining example of what migrants contribute to the United Kingdom.
Alberta was, and still is, a proud and intelligent young women with dreams, the capacity for hard work and the compulsion to help others on her way up. But one June morning last year, everything changed for Alberta. It was a day that she would later describe to me as one of the worst in her life. Showering to get ready for college, she heard a loud knock at the door. Quickly, she began to get dressed, but she was too slow. When five immigration officers burst open the front door, she was still half naked. Loudly, they ordered Alberta to come out of the bathroom. The indignity of her situation grew as, in her own words, she felt a “spontaneous gush of blood” between her legs; the terror caused her period to come early. Mortified, she explained to the officers that her five-year immigration permit was still valid. They did not listen. Instead, they arrested her and locked her in the back of their van, where she remembers feeling “like a caged animal.”
Alberta was taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre, imprisoned despite committing no crime. Yarl’s Wood, of course, is essentially a prison. Victims of rape, torture and trafficking are held inside. Almost half the women detained in Yarl’s Wood have experienced suicidal thoughts. In 2015, the chief inspector of prisons described Yarl’s Wood as a “place of national concern”. After more than three weeks of misery and detention, the Home Office released Alberta, admitting that it had acted on incorrect information. But this was not the end of her suffering at the hands of immigration control.
While detained in Yarl’s Wood, Alberta missed critical deadlines and her grades dropped rapidly. With this handicap, her performance in college began to decline. To this day, bi-weekly visits to the immigration reporting centre force Alberta to revisit her trauma. For days ahead of these visits, she struggles to eat, has problems sleeping and breaks down in tears. Because of the Home Office’s gross errors, her dream of becoming a midwife is now uncertain. Alberta’s story is one of mistreatment, cruelty and inhumanity, but sadly it is not unique. So many others echo these horrors when they recount their experiences of living under immigration control.
Each year, the Government pay out more than £4 million to people as compensation for having been detained unlawfully. Half those detained between 2013 and 2018 were ultimately released back into their community. They were therefore people the state deemed had the right to remain. Alberta’s story illustrates a broken immigration system that treats humans without dignity—a system that stains the fundamental principles of our legal system and our state.
Over the past year, attention has been drawn to the Government’s hostile environment. The Windrush scandal revealed that thousands of British citizens were incorrectly deported, detained, made jobless, left without housing and healthcare, split from their families, left destitute and treated like strangers in their homes. But Windrush is not an isolated mistake. The Home Office has been broken by a public discourse that has got out of control—a xenophobic rhetoric that has become accepted by too many in this House, with the UKIP-ification of our newspapers, of our television and of the Government themselves.
The United Kingdom has built a proud reputation for liberalism and fairness. As a member of the United Nations Security Council, we have been a world leader in the spread of human rights and justice, but our treatment of immigrants leaves us no better than the human rights abusers. It leaves our moral authority, frankly, in the gutter. Government-condoned prejudice permeates every one of an immigrant’s first encounters with the state. The Home Office imprisons tens of thousands of people every year, including survivors of torture, trafficking and rape, with no time limit. We are the only EU country that allows the indefinite detention of migrants.
But it is not only this that singles Britain out. We have one of the slowest and least efficient immigration processes in the developed world. In France, the average stay for detained migrants is just one month. In the United Kingdom, the average stay in a detention centre is 19 months—yes, 19, more than double the EU average. Detention has the potential to be harmful and unlawful from the very first day to the very last. Why has detention become the default, and why are alternatives never used? Bail with reporting restrictions and electronic monitoring should surely be considered before we lock migrants up and throw away the keys.
The brutal treatment of immigrants such as Alberta not only denies them their freedom; it can leave emotional scars that torment them for the rest of their lives. In a fair society, only a court should have the power to detain. In a fair society, detention is not the default response—it is the last resort. In every other sphere of British life, innocence is presumed while guilt must be proven, but the legal basis of our immigration system is upside down. The burden of proof is the wrong way round. Why are people imprisoned by the Home Office without the assessment of any judge or jury? Instead of forcing detainees to demonstrate why they should be released, why does the Home Office not have to demonstrate why they must be detained?
Access to justice is another principle that runs across every aspect of UK law. It allows people to have their voice heard, to exercise their rights, to challenge discrimination and to hold decision makers accountable. But access to justice is impossible without legal representation. So why is legal representation impossible to access for so many under immigration control? In the UN, we prescribe these standards internationally, but on our own soil, more than half the people in detention are denied access to a lawyer. These legal aid deserts have grown due to systematic cuts to legal aid. There has been a 56% fall in the total number of legal aid providers for asylum seekers since 2005. This lack of legal representation means that vulnerable people are sent back to their country of origin when they should have been granted the right to remain.
As champions of human rights and the rule of law, MPs in this House must ask ourselves some tough questions. How can we deport migrants without granting them legal representation? How can we split migrants from their children and partners without giving them access to justice? How can we pull migrants away from their homes and livelihoods without respecting our own rule of law?
Our current system is not only cruel, unjustifiable and damaging to the lives of detainees; it is a great burden on the British taxpayer. The country’s detention estate is one of the largest in Europe, costing more than £160 million a year. The average cost of detaining one person in this system is about £36,000—greater than the fees of Eton, Harrow or any of the country’s poshest boarding schools. What justifies this enormous waste of money? What justifies a system that treats the vulnerable as criminals and expects taxpayers to foot the bill?
For individuals, too, the cost of being trapped under immigration control continues to spiral. The Home Office is making up to 800% profit on applications and putting profit before principles, even when it means ruining people’s lives. As Stuart C. McDonald said in Westminster Hall on Tuesday, the fees for children under immigration control in this country are a particular disgrace. It is a shame on our nation that it is 22 times more expensive for a child to become a citizen in this country than in Germany. The Minister for Immigration was responding in that debate, as she is today. I understand her claim that the Government need to “balance the books”, but when the Government are intent on keeping taxes low for the richest in society, can flagrant profiteering off the most vulnerable ever be justified?
Much of the blame for the state of the immigration system in this country lies with this Government and this Prime Minister, who single-handedly coined the “hostile environment” policy. However, any constructive debate on immigration will recognise that no party—and that absolutely includes my own—has been innocent. The Labour party should also be ashamed of its treatment of people under immigration control during its three terms in power. With the mutual recognition of past failures, we can begin a cross-party response to heal these wounds, but to do so, we must first clean up the injuries of the past.
The Home Office’s war against undocumented immigration has built a shadow economy fuelled by workplace exploitation, human trafficking, drugs and other crime. Some 600,000 people live illegally in the UK, and they will remain here regardless of their legal status. The question is whether to keep them illegal, fuelling crime and the shadow economy, or to regularise their status, allowing them to pay income tax and national insurance, live safely and become respected members of society. I support the latter option as the first step in cleaning up the Home Office failures of the past. I urge those who think that proposal too radical or perhaps too left-wing to consider the comments of my unlikely ally on this issue, the former Foreign secretary. In the wake of Windrush, even Boris Johnson called for the very same measure. A one-off immigration amnesty would allow this country to start afresh and to create a new system that respects migrants’ rights and their contribution, while apologising for the mistakes of the past.
Today, we must recognise that this is a crucial turning point in British history. The Government’s lurch to the hard right and their decision to leave the European Union leaves Britain alone, isolated and on track for decline. If the Government continue to pursue Brexit, as they are minded to do, they must do so while learning the lessons of the past, not by compounding them. The opportunity to reshape our immigration system that comes with it must reflect back on the hostile environment that has routinely abused human rights and brought shame on our nation.
If we are to build a truly open, global Britain that engages with the world, as the last debate demonstrated, redrawing our immigration policy is a vital part of that. We must continue to attract the talent and hard work of immigrants such as Alberta. Otherwise, our public services, our schools, our NHS and our businesses will be starved of workers and will further decline. We must look forward to a future with a just immigration policy, motivated by compassion, fairness and the rule of law—an immigration system where migrants are treated like human beings, not criminals.
When we discuss in this House the trade deals that we will strike with the Chinese and the Indians, let us be honest: the first thing those nations will ask for is the immigration of their citizens to this country. Because of the position this country finds itself in, with no significant trade deals with the rest of the world, we will grant them that right. For all those reasons, it is time to reform cross-party our response to those controlled by immigration in this country.
At the outset, I want to congratulate Mr Lammy on securing this important debate. Listening to his impassioned, articulate and thoughtful contribution, one is perhaps also obliged to extend him sincere congratulations on his award last night as GQ’s politician of the year at its men of the year awards. Listening to his description of Alberta’s story, one can but be convinced that the award was justly deserved.
The right hon. Gentleman is of course right to point out that people from all over the world have come to the UK and helped to make this country what it is today. We welcome their contribution and the fact that Britain is one of the best countries in the world to come and live in. That is why we need a fair immigration system under which people can come here, be welcomed and become part of our communities, and a fair system that treats people with decency and respect.
That is why this Government are taking action and will continue to do so. We are fighting modern slavery to stop people being trafficked here and stripped of their freedom by slave drivers. We have changed the law to stop children being routinely detained in the immigration system. In 2009, over 1,100 children entered detention, and last year only 44 were held for a very brief period. We have set up a scheme to resettle 20,000 people fleeing Syria so that the most vulnerable, such as disabled people and torture victims, get refuge, not just those fit enough to travel here alone. We are also working to put right the wrongs done to the Windrush generation.
However, we also need to have a controlled system, because Britain is one of the best countries in the world to live in and many people want to come here. We need a controlled system under which the rules that make that possible are followed. That is what the Government are building, and it is what the public expect. When people break the rules and try to play the system, it is unfair, and the people it is most unfair to are those who have come here and played by the rules. That is why we have broken up the UK Border Agency to make the system more effective, reintroduced exit checks and toughened the penalties for people employing illegal workers. Migration benefits the UK, but that system has to be underpinned by rules.
I remain absolutely committed to improving the border, immigration and citizenship system. As hon. Members will recall, the system was labelled “not fit for purpose” by a former Labour Home Secretary. I have listed some examples of the progress made since 2010, but I absolutely recognise that there is more to do. That is why we are listening to Members in both Houses, to those using the system, to partners and to independent advice. I really welcome the constructive engagement I have had with members of Her Majesty’s Opposition. I have sought to keep my door open to colleagues from across the House, and while there has certainly been a great deal of challenge, there has also been much positivity and many constructive suggestions of ways in which we can work together to make the system better.
As I have said, the Government have made a strong commitment to learn the lessons from the wrongs experienced by the Windrush generation. On
However, we are not waiting for that review to take action to improve the system. The review is part of a whole series of examples of independent scrutiny bodies that the Government are working with or have commissioned. For example, we have commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee for advice on a migration system for European economic area nationals following our exit from the European Union, and asked it to conduct a full review of the shortage occupation list. The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration continues to scrutinise the border, immigration and citizenship system.
We are not only implementing the recommendations from Stephen Shaw’s review of detention, but, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out in July, going further and undertaking a series of improvements. As part of our response to Shaw, the Government will explore alternatives to detention with faith groups, non-governmental organisations and communities. As a first step, we intend to pilot a scheme to manage in the community vulnerable women who would otherwise have been detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. Home Office officials have been working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to develop that pilot, which will mean that rather than receiving support and care in an immigration removal centre, the women will get a programme of support and care in the community.
We will review the adults at risk policy, ensuring that the most vulnerable and complex cases get the attention they need. We will look again at how consideration of rule 35 reports on possible cases of torture can be improved, while avoiding abuse of the processes. We will pilot an additional bail referral at the two-month point and increase the size and scope of the detention gatekeeper function. For now, the policy is one of senior civil servant sign-off for detention decisions, and we will strengthen links with pre-departure teams by putting additional Home Office people in removal centres to increase face-to-face engagement with detainees and resolve possible problems with detention.
We will commission the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration to report each year on whether and how the adults at risk policy is making a difference. We will pilot the use of Skype so that detainees can contact their families overseas and in the UK. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked officials to review how time limits work in other countries, and how they relate to other protections in their detention systems, so as to have a better-informed debate based on what works to tackle illegal migration and what is humane for those detained. Once that is complete we will consider further the issue of time-limited detention.
I point out to the right hon. Member for Tottenham that the Government currently manage 95% of those in the removal pool in the community, and of those in immigration removal centres, 63% leave within 28 days and more than 90% within four months. He mentioned the debate held earlier this week in Westminster Hall, which was initiated by Stuart C. McDonald, in which we discussed immigration fees. Of course we keep all Home Office fees under regular review, and when setting immigration and nationality fees, which are approved by Parliament in line with the Immigration Act 2014, we take into account the wider costs involved in running our border, immigration and citizenship system, so that those who directly benefit from it contribute to its funding. That reduces the burden on UK taxpayers.
I am carefully considering points made during a recent debate in the Lords on child citizenship fees, and in other debates held this week, and in due course I will take account of the findings of the imminent review by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration. It is important that we have a fair charging policy that considers a customer’s circumstances and requirements and supports the effective operation of our immigration system. We will continue to set fees that take into account the benefits accruing from a successful application, for example across the labour market.
Now more than ever, we are listening to independent advice, developing policy that is rooted in evidence and taking feedback from customers to ensure that we continue to have a world-leading border, immigration and citizenship system, and that those subject to immigration control are provided with the appropriate service. The right hon. Member for Tottenham and others are right to bring matters to my attention, but I remind the House of the scale of the immigration system. Thousands of decisions are made every day, and the overwhelming majority are completed within published service standards and enable people to visit the UK, study or work here, or rebuild their lives.
UK Visas and Immigration offices make more than 3 million decisions a year, and the Border Force enables 250 million people to cross our border while keeping our country safe and secure. Immigration Enforcement ensures that 95% of individuals who require leave to remain, but do not have it because they have overstayed their visa or are not eligible to have it extended, are managed in the community and receive guidance on departure.
I am not complacent, but I list those achievements because they are not insignificant. For every case in which I have conceded that the system could have done better, and must do better in future, there are thousands more people who are satisfied with their experience of the immigration system. I am proud of the hard work and dedication of officials in the Home Office, and their integrity will always be our first line of assurance. The treatment of the Windrush generation has been unacceptable and we will put it right. Britain is one of the best places in the world to come and live, and I want it to stay that way.
In conclusion, I welcome the offer made by the right hon. Gentleman and many of his colleagues from across the House to work on a cross-party basis to ensure that our future systems are the best they can possibly be.
Question put and agreed to.