It is a pleasure to follow Peter Heaton-Jones, who is clearly doing his best to represent his constituents in challenging times.
A lot has been said in the past three years about the relationship between the EU referendum and immigration. The National Centre for Social Research has found that people who want the Government to prioritise cutting immigration overwhelmingly voted leave, and those it describes as “middle class liberals” nearly all voted to remain. It may surprise nobody that in my constituency of Bristol West—hard-core Remainia—I have never been asked to reduce immigration or to do less for refugees. We are proud of the benefits of immigration and of the diverse population that we celebrate in my constituency.
If someone has concerns about immigration or wants it to be cut, that does not mean they are racist, but if they believe people are worth less than others and should have worse treatment because of their race and they act on those beliefs, that makes someone racist. Mixing up the two is unhelpful and insulting—I will not do it—but I think the fear of that has held us back from talking honestly and properly about immigration.
I want an immigration system that remain and leave voters can all believe in and trust, that operates rules efficiently and fairly but honours our international obligations to refugees and respects human rights. In my view, the system the Government are proposing in their long-awaited White Paper and immigration Bill does not achieve this. As a result, I believe nobody is going to be satisfied. This Government have failed to lead a national debate, or even a parliamentary one, about what we all want and need from an immigration system. As a consequence, we do not have a way of talking about immigration, and we should.
I want to talk about immigration. My father was a migrant from India and my mother from a working-class white family from the north. I have lived in parts of the country where absolutely no other brown people had ever lived, as well as very diverse places such as the part of Bristol I now have the honour to represent.
In a sense, we are all migrants—some of us are from families who have lived in the same place for generations, but we all got to where we are now from somewhere else once. We also all have the potential to be migrants, from desire or necessity. In the 1980s, Tory Ministers actually advocated a policy of economic migration when they said to unemployed people, “Get on your bike.” In the last few years, many people—my husband included—have benefited from the opportunities that freedom of movement has provided to live, work and study in countries across the EU. Others have come here to work, filling gaps in our workforce, and they see the benefits of migration.
I want to see an improved response to refugees. Across the country, I believe that this compassionate nation with a strong sense of justice agrees that people should be protected if they are fleeing war, persecution and torture, but I do not think that I have ever come across anyone who thinks that our current system of responding to refugees is working well right now. I will discuss this in more detail on Second Reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill.
There are two urgent problems for our immigration policy: the state of our current system and the rise of the far right. The largest category in my case load as an MP has always been immigration, and my experience is of a system in chaos that serves nobody well, wastes public money and treats people very badly. Passports and ID documents get lost, decisions take months, there are long waits for appeals, people are denied the right to be with their families on family occasions when a visit visa is refused, and the Home Office admits that severe staffing shortages have led to a sheer, large backlog of rising numbers of claims. There has also been the Windrush scandal, in which people who have the legal right to be here were treated appallingly. And this Government propose to put more people into the same system. I would like to think that this would be a levelling up—a system of high standards for all and fair rules properly applied—but I do not.
I am not surprised that constituents of mine from the EU27 are worried that they will become the next Windrush scandal. I am horrified at how many EU27 citizens are now leaving the UK, leaving behind them staff shortages. I am angry at the uncertainty for British people in the EU27, but I am also sad for people who thought that voting leave would lead to a reformed, fair, reliable immigration system that works in the interests of the whole country, because that does not look likely. On the rise of the far right, I am worried, and we should all be worried, because when we fail to construct an immigration system that everyone can believe, the far right moves into that vacuum. This country is already much divided and I fear that those divisions will get worse.
Next Tuesday, I will vote against the Prime Minister’s deal and against her crashing us out with no deal. We will then have to consider rapidly what other options we have. Almost certainly, we will need to consult the people, which is best done through a general election. I want us to celebrate migration. We have the means to do it, so let us do so.