Immigration and Social Security Co-Ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 28th January 2019.

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Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 7:30 pm, 28th January 2019

I am aware of the time limit, so I am afraid I will not give way.

This immigration system’s design should have learned and inwardly digested the lessons from the Windrush system. It should have involved the nation—leavers and remainers, those concerned about immigration and those concerned that it treats neither long-term legal migrants nor newly arrived people fleeing persecution well—in discussing what a new immigration policy should be and how it should operate. I want that system, and this is not that.

There is a real risk that we are putting people who have legally made their lives here through an undignified, barely tested process of applying for the right to remain here—people who have contributed to their communities, raised children, worked hard, paid taxes and helped their neighbours. This is in the wake of an immigration scandal in which other people who had legally made their lives here, contributed to their communities, raised children, worked hard, paid taxes and helped their neighbours were made to feel unwelcome and told to go home. Some lost their jobs or homes and suffered great hardship. Forms were lost, time and money were lost, and hearts that felt British were truly broken.

A constituent of mine whose life has been here for decades but was born in another EU country said to me at the time of Windrush, “We, the EU 3 million, are going to be the next Windrush generation.” There is no sign in this Bill or the White Paper that the lessons of that scandal have been learned and that my constituent can be reassured. The Home Office, which my staff and I deal with daily on behalf of constituents, has many compassionate staff, but it is already struggling. It is buckling under the strain, and we propose to add 3 million more people to the system.

The Home Secretary says that this is the start of a national conversation about our immigration system. The start should have been years ago. As the result of the EU referendum has so many times been identified as closely tied with concerns about immigration, surely this conversation should have started in 2016. If not then, why not in 2017 or perhaps 2018? We should have talked about this in more depth than simply trotting out platitudes about valuing people who have made their home here, when so much pain has been caused to so many who have made their homes here.

There should have been honesty about the mutual benefits of reciprocal movement of people who live, work and study across the EU—I declare an interest: one of those is my husband. There should be honesty, not lies, which is what we were fed during the referendum campaign. We should discuss how we want to welcome people, who we want to welcome and why, and we should do that in a way that is informed by our country’s history, our way of life and our knowledge that those two things have always been intertwined with migration. We should talk about the consequences of migration policy for jobs and for our care homes, universities, creative industries, aerospace sector and tech, digital and IT companies. We should have been discussing this as a country. This Bill should have been introduced in the concluding stages, not the starting stages, of a national debate.

When people’s worries about immigration—whatever their motivations—are not dealt with, there are serious consequences. People who think that there should be more controls grow resentful if they feel their concerns are ignored, and they feel alienated from a political system that they rightly think should serve them. They may feel that they are labelled as racists, which they may also feel is unfair, and that does not help their feeling of alienation. This is a context in which the far right benefits. It is not a context in which good immigration policy is created.

My constituents in Bristol West often write to me about migration. They never tell me to help refugees or Windrush victims or EU citizens less. They tell me to fight harder, and I always will, but they also do not feel that the system is working. They campaign to stop indefinite detention of migrants. They campaign to keep all EU citizens not just here, but here and welcomed. They are losing trust in our system. Nobody is satisfied except the far right, who see opportunity in the frustrations of those who feel that the system is not working for them.

Reasonable people, including the Immigration Minister and the Home Secretary, would agree that if we were fleeing war or persecution in this country, we would expect a safe welcome in another. We would probably go to the nearest country, but we would understand that it might need to run a programme of resettlement to a third country if numbers were large. We would hope not to be put in such dire circumstances that we felt forced to leave the first safe country, as so many people do from countries around the Mediterranean to flee to us, a country that people see as a sanctuary—something we should be proud of.

If that country could not or would not help us or left us unable to live, work or provide for our families—the circumstances that so many people in Libya and other countries find themselves in—we might also be so tempted. We would not expect to be put in substandard, unsafe accommodation paid for by the taxpayer or be prevented from getting a job. We would expect to contribute. We would not feel it was right that we were kept on a subsistence allowance, yet left with the blame for a system that is rooking the taxpayers as well as not serving us.

Our asylum system is flawed. In a report published in 2017, the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, which I chair, put forward many recommendations that I beseech the Home Secretary and Immigration Minister to look at again. We should end indefinite detention, and I am glad to hear vocal cross-party support for ending it, which I hope the Government will take heed of.

This Bill could have dealt with all these issues, but it barely touches the surface. The Bill fails. It fails to provide a route for planning a fair, efficient, good-value, humane and caring system that those who voted leave and those who voted remain can believe in. It could have provided the framework for an immigration system that we could all put our trust in, but it does not. Instead, it creates huge powers but provides no clarity. The White Paper could have given that clarity, but it does not. It misses by a mile the vision and values that our country’s immigration system should have been built on—British values of tolerance, openness and fair-mindedness.

This Bill could have been the nourishing meal that gave us what we needed to get through the economic woes of Brexit, which I still hope we will not have to suffer. Nobody will be satisfied. Everybody will cry for more. I would despair, but I want to keep hope that the Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister will reflect on what has been said around the House today and seek to amend the Bill themselves. Leave voters deserve better, remain voters deserve better, and our country deserves better.