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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:55 pm on 28th January 2019.

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Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 8:55 pm, 28th January 2019

One interesting and more laudable aspect of the Bill is that it does seek to maintain a common travel area. I recognise that there are many issues with the Bill, which is why I will not be supporting it. I will certainly be going through the Lobby to vote against it.

One of the fundamental issues with the Bill is the lack of flexibility and the rigidity of the system, of which the £30,000 is merely one example. I have talked about my personal example, but I also think of many of the people I know from university, including junior doctors who start on a salary well below the £30,000 threshold, or other people I know from other countries around the world who will not meet that threshold. It is an entirely arbitrary and utterly absurd threshold that will destroy potential in our country. That is one reason why, if the Bill does go into Committee, I will be looking to support amendments that remove the threshold, so that we can have a skills-based system rather than an arbitrary salary threshold.

There are also severe problems with the 12-month visa scheme, and there are all sorts of issues relating to the protection of workers’ rights, which are another fundamental root cause. It is not a question of immigration undermining wages and working conditions in this country; it is the fact that organised labour has been under systematic assault by this Government for many years. That is what has driven down wages and why wages have stagnated. The power of organised labour to bargain collectively in this country has been systematically undermined by this Government. That is the root cause and the heart of the problem. It is not about immigration.

The swathe of Henry VIII powers that the Government seek to usurp from Parliament in favour of the Executive is extremely sinister and unacceptable. If the Bill receives its Second Reading tonight—I hope it does not, but it may well—that must be challenged in Committee.

The whole notion of an arbitrary cap on migrants panders to the worst sort of stereotypes and ought to be stopped. We cannot have a system that imposes such arbitrary limits. It is simply nonsensical from any sort of economic-development perspective. Indeed, an arbitrary cap militates against any effort to try to improve the country’s prosperity.

I wholeheartedly support the proposal by the Mother of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman, to introduce a 20-day limit to immigration detention. I deal closely with this issue in many constituency cases. The idea that this is the only country in Europe with a system of unlimited detention is absolutely shameful. The Government should accept my right hon. and learned Friend’s amendment without any Division and incorporate it into the Bill.

It would be a great gesture of good will and a great example of this country’s humanitarian tradition if we sought not to have arbitrary detention. In the past year, more than 10,000 have been detained in this country without limit. They can only count the days up; they cannot count the days down. Some 70% of those people are detained not because there is any sense that they have committed an offence; they are being detained entirely arbitrarily and it is an extremely distressing situation for many of them to be in. The system needs to be changed.

It is about not just the economic aspects but the opportunities denied because of our asylum system. Think of the huge talents thwarted. I have met doctors, surgeons, lawyers and chemists in my constituency who are all denied the opportunity to work in or contribute in any meaningful way to our society, because under our current asylum policy they are not able to work so are kept in limbo for years at a time. It affects not only the adults but those who came here, often as infants and small children, who have grown up as second-class citizens. There are very frustrated young adults in our society who have been denied the chance to go on holiday with their friends or to get student tuition. They have been denied any kind of meaningful recognition in our country.

I have confronted the appalling reality in my past 18 months or so as an MP. I have had to deal with more than 100 asylum cases in the past five months alone because of the Home Office’s failures to expedite those cases efficiently. I find it tragic when 18-year-olds are unable to take up a place to study law at university in Glasgow because they cannot get student finance because their immigration or asylum status has not been determined, or when champion boxers who want to represent Scotland internationally are unable to go abroad to fight in competitions because their asylum status has not been settled. That is shameful and a squandering of human talent and ability. That they are denied that chance is a collective loss to everyone in our country. It needs to be addressed urgently because it is a shameful situation.

The “move on” policy came into sharp focus in Glasgow last year. With the existing asylum contracts coming to a close in 2019, we learned that Serco, which had the asylum-accommodation contract in Glasgow, was seeking to move on asylum seekers at a much faster rate than usual. We saw the prospect of mass destitution in Glasgow, because more than 300 potential evictions were going to happen. It is clear that the “move on” policy needs to be addressed. I would support measures to extend the period to give asylum seekers the right to assess where they are at the end of a process and to consider their right to appeal, without the threat of being turfed out on to the streets. That is especially true for those in particularly vulnerable situations when they have no recourse to public funds. If they are survivors of domestic abuse, care leavers or have dependents, it is shameful. We cannot be in a situation where they are reliant on charities to support them in the face of destitution. I just find that, in our country, that just cannot be acceptable. I hope that most people in this House recognise that appeal for basic dignity.

We face an economic challenge in Scotland, which we tried to address in previous years under a Labour Government through the fresh talent initiative. The initiative was successful in reversing Scotland’s historic population decline. From 1801 to 1901, the Scottish population grew by 180%, but from 1901 to 2001 it grew by just 10%, which was a huge demographic challenge for Scotland. The current immigration policy of this Government threatens to undo all that hard work to reverse Scotland’s population decline.

Having worked in Scottish enterprise, promoting initiatives such as the ScotGrad scheme, which has brought in international graduates and foreign language students to help promote Scottish exports abroad, I can say that the policy is a real threat to the future economic prosperity of this country. We must oppose this Bill for a number of reasons—reasons to do with thwarted opportunity, basic human dignity and economic opportunity. The Bill’s approach is totally wrongheaded. We need a new system rooted in economic opportunity, in human dignity and in the ability to grow our collective potential as a country.