First, may I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in relation to research support I have received in my office for work on immigration matters? May I also say upfront that I strongly endorse the remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman and the support she has from a number of other right hon. and hon. Members around the House for taking action on indefinite immigration detention, which I think we can all agree is an obscene reflection on our current system?
It has been a pleasure to hear so many Members from around the House speaking so positively of the contribution and value immigrants have brought to our country over so many years, and it is true in my constituency, too: we are proud to be home to so many diverse communities, and I hope that the message that has gone forth from the House tonight to those who are here now or who might be considering making their home here in future is, “You will be welcome; you will be valued members of our community; and we will make sure that during your time spent in this country, you will be looked after well and can be happy.”
This Bill is very light in detail, yet it offers very wide powers to Ministers to implement all sorts of potential changes via immigration rules. While I appreciate that that is the way that many immigration changes are brought in already under our present system, the Bill’s ending of free movement represents a seismic change in our system that I believe—and I think this belief is widespread—ought to be subject to careful parliamentary scrutiny.
We also know that our existing immigration system, which is presumably to be transplanted across in some degree to EEA nationals in future, is already flawed, and we have rightly heard tonight about Windrush. I would also highlight the recent DNA debacle, which we do not want to be replicated for future immigrants coming to this country, as we fear.
We are pleased that the Government have asked the Law Commission to look at how immigration rules might be simplified, but it seems premature or, indeed, inconsistent to ask it to do so while asking us to give powers to Ministers to make ongoing changes that the commission will not be able to take account of. The Henry VIII powers in this Bill are very inappropriate in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, especially in the light of the direction of travel laid out in the White Paper and in particular, as we have heard again and again tonight, the very significant concerns about the £30,000 income threshold to assess whether a migrant has the skills to mean that we would want them to make their home here. As we have heard tonight, income is not commensurate with skills, and qualifications are not commensurate with the skills we may need across a whole range of sectors. I hope that the Minister has heard the widespread concerns around the House and will look again at that threshold after tonight’s debate.
I want to echo comments made, including by my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott the shadow Home Secretary, about the Government’s proposal for short-term work visas. These have some place in an immigration system, but on a large scale they will be inefficient for employers, create insecurity for individuals, damage family solidarity since family members will not be eligible to come in with those on short-term visas and damage community cohesion and integration. I particularly say to the Minister that there is a serious risk of the exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers on these short-term visas, as well as the risk that they will undercut UK workers if unscrupulous employers choose to take advantage of this system.
We will need strong protections at the very least to support a short-term workers visa scheme, yet today our labour market inspectorate is not well resourced. Indeed, Focus on Labour Exploitation tells me that we are at about half the global benchmark of inspectors to workers—it should be one inspector for every 10,000 workers. FLEX calculates that, given that benchmark, businesses face inspection on average once every 500 years. There is great concern about Ministers’ ability to make immigration rules that might increase the vulnerability of those workers without full parliamentary scrutiny.
The Bill will allow Ministers to change rules on social security co-ordination, which is important in facilitating employment mobility. That is good for the economy and for individuals, but it is also a matter of fairness to individuals who have contributed and who have expectations about their entitlements going forward. I hope that the Minister will categorically rule out any possibility that the Government would in future unilaterally withdraw the ability to aggregate and passport pension and social security rights in the event of no deal or after the transition period.
I also want to express concerns for those who do not or cannot regularise their status, including some of those applying for settled status, or those who might become irregular in future, such as overstayers. The current rules on income thresholds are particularly damaging for families, creating a risk of poverty and homelessness. In a number of debates about our Brexit plans over the past years, I have highlighted particular concerns about the wellbeing of children. Again, I underline that issue for the Minister tonight. The Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium has particular concerns about children, because both EEA and non-EEA children might become subject to rules under which they have no recourse to public funds, creating huge hardship and, as we have heard, shunting costs to local authorities, which will have to pick up the pieces as a result. I hope that tonight the Minister might commit to relaxing or at least looking at relaxing the exceptional circumstances criteria set out in the 2012 immigration rules changes, so that families with dependants under the age of 18 have access to the public funds they need.
There are also concerns about the cost of regularising one’s status and the complexity of the process. There was a welcome U-turn on fees for applying for settled status earlier this month, but the system is still complex. We have to be worried when the Home Secretary has spoken about the 90% success rate for those going to the beta testing phase—even in a relatively limited control group, 10% of cases cannot easily or readily acquire settled status. There is great worry that that ratio might increase in future as more vulnerable individuals make their applications.
I am concerned about exceptionally high fees and repeat fees for those who will not be applying for settled status, such as those who might arrive in future and will then go on to the 10-year path to citizenship. Will Ministers reconsider the impact of that, particularly on children and young people?
What advice are the Government are offering to families to ensure that applicants can achieve the highest form of status to which they are entitled? For example, a child with a claim to British citizenship should be able to make that claim in their own right and not be expected simply to be reliant on the lower settled status that might be available to their parent. That leads me to ask the Minister about information and advice, and to ask her to consider the importance of ensuring legal aid and appeal rights.
I do not welcome the Bill tonight. In many ways, it will be bad, especially for the most vulnerable in our country. It will have worrying equality impacts, as we have heard from a number of colleagues, and it leaves the future very uncertain for EEA and UK nationals alike. In those circumstances, I look forward to voting against the Bill because it does not give our country and the individuals living in it now and in the future the rights and good will that they deserve.