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Future Immigration

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:18 pm on 19th December 2018.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary 1:18 pm, 19th December 2018

I thank the Home Secretary for early sight of the statement.

As the whole House knows, since the 2016 referendum politics has been convulsed by the debate about Brexit, and we have seen ever more heightened convulsions in recent days. At the heart of the debate, as far as many of our constituents are concerned, have been migration issues. That is why it is a disgrace that it has taken the Government so long to produce this long-promised White Paper. It is almost a year late, and this is entirely because of internal disputes in the Cabinet.

The whole House knows that when we leave the single market, freedom of movement falls. The Labour party set that out in our manifesto, and it remains our position. Then there will be an urgent need to fashion a new and, we hope, fairer immigration system, but the important thing is that, going forward, we do not base the new immigration system on some of the myths of the past. The whole House heard the Prime Minister say that the Government were still committed to reducing migration to tens of thousands—a target that has never been met, will never be met, and is a pretext for anti-immigrant measures—but many Members will have heard the Home Secretary on the radio today, repeatedly refusing to commit himself to the tens of thousands target. So which is it? Where do the Government stand? Will they continue with a bogus and unachievable target, or will they genuinely try to shape an immigration system that meets the needs of the society?

If the Home Secretary is allowed to abandon the commitment to a formal target in the tens of thousands, that would be welcome. That target was a purely political device, designed to stress the Government’s intent to crack down on immigration when the Conservatives felt under pressure from UKIP, but the House will wait to see what his attitude to targets means in practice. The danger is that he will abandon formal adherence to targets in principle, but that the Home Office—particularly hearing, as it will have heard, what the Prime Minister has to say—will continue to function in the same way, with all the distortions, all the unfairness and all the inefficiencies that arbitrary targets lead to.

I support a single immigration system for all nationalities. To my certain knowledge, nothing drove pro-leave sentiment among voters of Commonwealth origin more than the sense that they were disadvantaged in relation to immigration compared with EU nationals. So, if Brexit produces nothing else, it ought to produce a system that moves away from that unfairness. We should be a country that treats the doctor from Poland in the same way as a doctor from Pakistan.

Is the Home Secretary aware of the concern that the uncertainty about the Government’s intentions and the delays in producing a White Paper have produced among EU citizens, their friends, their families and their employers? Is he able to tell us when we will know what the minimum salary threshold will be? There is much concern that the minimum salary threshold will be at £30,000, which would actually rule out healthcare workers, social care workers and technicians, and be very damaging to both the private and public sector. When will we know what that threshold will be?

As for the arrangement that the Home Secretary set out in the statement about time-limited temporary short-term workers who have no rights to access public funds, settle or bring dependants—they would come for 12 months at a time, followed by a year-long cooling-off period—that might suit some sectors, notably agriculture, but it is a very alarming prospect for most employers because it will not allow them to establish the continuity of employment that is vital for delivering their services, whether in the private or the public sector.

Does the Home Secretary really think that the Home Office has the capacity to change its established ways of working and its unofficial targets, which it was clearly working towards and helped contribute to the Windrush scandal? Does he accept that on immigration, he cannot have it both ways? He cannot talk about an outward-looking, global Britain and meeting the needs of society and employers, while being part of a Government with a rhetoric of cracking down on migration—a rhetoric that, I might add, implicitly denigrates the parents of many of us in this House. He cannot be part of a Government with photocalls at airports to stress how they are cracking down on migrants. He cannot have it both ways. If he wishes to speak for a Government who are genuinely outward-looking, genuinely global in their outlook, he needs to move away definitively from that anti-migrant rhetoric and he needs to take steps to dismantle the hostile environment, much of which was implemented under this Government.

Conservative Members may say that the Labour party in government sometimes brought forward immigration legislation that was unfair and unsustainable. I should know—I voted against all of it. So please do not come to the Dispatch Box and make that point. Many of us who sit on the Front Bench voted against those items of legislation again and again. The question for this Government is not what previous Governments did, but what they are going to do. On immigration, rhetoric about global Britain is not enough; they need to dismantle the hostile environment, and they need to create a system that is at the same time fair to migrants, fair to employers and fair to the society.

The Windrush scandal upset society as a whole and Members on both sides of the House, but it was not an aberration; it was a consequence of a way to look at migrants that was essentially negative, which was reflected, sadly, in legislation passed under more than one Government. The system that the Home Secretary has set out in his statement will not meet the needs of migrants for certainty. It will not meet the needs of employers for a stable, skilled workforce. Above all, this statement, although it may read well to people who want to see migration cracked down on, does not meet the need of the hour. Brexit offers, if it offers nothing else, the chance to put in place an efficient—no one that deals with the Home Office nowadays can say that it is universally efficient—fair and non-discriminatory immigration system that meets the needs of the society. We should seize that opportunity. I believe that this White Paper statement falls far short of that.