Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:26 pm on 26th June 2019.

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Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales) 3:26 pm, 26th June 2019

This has been an excellent debate so far, and I am sure the Prime Minister will come to regret—at least I hope she will—that her defining legacy, quite apart from the Brexit chaos we face, is the hostile environment she created through her Government’s antagonistic, discriminatory and entirely counterproductive immigration policy.

In the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016, we have seen an effort to prevent people from accessing basic services such as employment, healthcare and education. We have witnessed a Home Secretary become Prime Minister and knowingly take a cruel and entirely unnecessary approach towards immigration. If we listened to the Government, we would think the immigration process straightforward, but many people are unable simply to leave, as the Government might lead us to think. More often than not, the Government’s policies have meant that the most vulnerable in society, often women, are disproportionately suffering.

One of my constituents in Paisley and Renfrewshire North, Ms A, is from Botswana, and she came to the UK 10 years ago as a student. She met her British partner, whom she married and they had one child together. Unfortunately, the relationship broke down due to abuse. Ms A is solely responsible for their five-year-old child, as the father shamefully provides no financial support, nor does he exercise any contact.

Ms A initiated the lengthy independent leave to remain—ILR—process to settle in the UK some time ago. However, with uncertainty looming and no official documentation granting ILR, Ms A’s employer chose to end her contract of employment, plunging her into an extremely vulnerable position. She has no recourse to public funds, nor the funds to secure childcare provision that would enable her to re-enter employment. As a result and understandably, my constituent’s mental health is deteriorating and she is anxious that any further delay in her application will plunge her even deeper into financial hardship, although she wonders whether that is indeed possible due to the hefty amounts of money she has spent at the Home Office already.

With Ms A’s son due to start school in August, what should be a positive time for that one-parent family is mired in insecurity and dread as Ms A waits for a decision from the Home Office. Who will look after Ms A’s son if she is sent home? I say home, but Ms A has been here for nearly a decade and naturally views Scotland as her home. What kind of future citizenry are we creating if we send the mother of a British citizen home? What will that five-year-old boy carry with him into the future?

The plight of Ms A is the plight of many refugees and asylum seekers throughout the country, and that has been further affected by the Government’s policy move to end automatic settlement for refugees after five years, deliberately leaving asylum seekers uncertain about whether they will eventually be deported. My constituency office in Renfrew deals with many cases like that of Ms A, and it is difficult to see how the climate of insecurity can be maintained if Scotland wants to continue to attract people from overseas in an attempt to combat the ageing of our population.

Recently, the UK Government also imposed changes for tier 5 entry visas, including, notably, the removal of ministers of religion from the eligibility criteria. That decision has generated much concern from faith leaders throughout my constituency and in religious communities across the United Kingdom. If we take the example of Catholic communities, that change will have a significant impact on priests coming into the UK because most Catholic dioceses regularly use the tier 5 religious worker visa route for them to come here on supply placements while parish priests are away for short periods. The supply placements are imperative as they enable people to continue attending mass and receiving sacraments, while keeping parish activities running smoothly—activities that are of benefit to the entire community, not just to Catholics.

Under the new Home Office guidance, priests on supply placements will now be required to use the tier 2 minister of religion visa route, which will double the costs incurred by parishes and make supply cover effectively unaffordable in some of the poorer communities. Unfortunately, the tier 2 route also imposes strict language requirements, and even those priests who have completed seminary in English may now be required to sit an additional English language test before embarking on their placements. Religious leaders in my constituency are extremely worried, not only about the financial and practical implications, but about the human costs of those hostile policy changes. I will go into more detail on this issue in the Westminster Hall debate next week initiated by my hon. Friend David Linden and touch on some of the representations that I have received from faith leaders across Renfrewshire, including from Bishop John Keenan.

I could go on about immigration detention policies, asylum seekers being denied the right to work, the denial of access to public funds and the ending of freedom of movement—which is one of the best intergovernmental policies ever drafted and something that my generation and the generation after have taken for granted because who in their right mind would want to end it? I could go on about Home Office incompetence, refugee family reunion rules, Windrush and sending LGBTQ people back to countries where homophobic persecution is rife.

The indifferent, iniquitous and incompetent Home Office’s roll of dishonour is, like immigration detention, limitless. We have come to expect that from the Conservatives, but the Labour party has been complicit in much of this, I am sorry to say. Of course, I am happy to acknowledge that there are many in the Labour party who speak out on those issues, and I admire Afzal Khan who now speaks for the Labour party on the subject, but its Front-Bench team has displayed a singular lack of leadership over several years. If, instead of producing “Controls on immigration” mugs, Labour had joined the SNP and others in talking up the real and tangible benefits of immigration, the Brexit vote might not have come to pass.

Remarkably, the Labour Party has failed to stand up for freedom of movement, despite the enormous benefits it has brought to the UK. The shadow Foreign Secretary said on “Peston”:

“We’re not going to die in a ditch for the sake of freedom of movement”.

What a short-sighted thing to say. When the new Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill was introduced, the Labour party intended to support the Government, but U-turned after facing enormous criticism. On Second Reading, the shadow Home Secretary said that

“the Labour party is clear that when Britain leaves the single market, freedom of movement ends. We set that out in our 2017 manifesto…so on that basis the Front Bench of the Labour party will not be opposing the Bill this evening.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2019;
Vol. 653, c. 515.]

We all know that 90 minutes later, amid a growing backlash on social media, Labour shifted its position and announced that it would whip its MPs to vote against the Bill. That is not leadership; it is a political and moral vacuum at the top of the Labour party so concerned by UKIP, the Brexit party and Nigel Farage that it has allowed its policy to shift to the right along with the Tories.

The leader of the Labour party has repeatedly made the incorrect claim that freedom of movement is responsible for the undercutting of workers’ rights. He wrote in The Guardian:

“If freedom of movement means the freedom to exploit cheap labour in a race to the bottom, it will never be accepted in any future relationship with Europe.”

That is completely wrong and risks scapegoating migrants for weak labour regulation. The Labour party failed to show proper opposition to the toxic rhetoric on immigration coming from UKIP and the Tories, out of fear of being seen as weak on immigration. The Labour party should ashamed of its infamous “Controls on immigration” mugs, to which my hon. Friend Deidre Brock referred earlier.

By contrast, we on the SNP Benches have spoken out regularly on these issues in this place. If we cannot, through argument or the voting Lobbies, change the UK approach, it is explicitly clear that Scotland requires its own distinct approach. The mid-year population estimates published on 25 April highlight the scale of the challenge. Scotland’s population continues to increase, and is at a record high of 5.4 million; however, population growth has slowed over the past two years. The Scottish population is ageing: in 2018, some 19% of the population were aged 65 and over, compared with 16% just 10 years ago. Fourteen of Scotland’s council areas—mostly rural or island councils, as well as areas in the west—have experienced depopulation.

Migration is the only reason why Scotland’s population continues to grow. Over the year to mid-2018, some 20,000 more people came to Scotland than left. The recent decrease in net migration has been driven by fewer people moving to Scotland from overseas and more people moving overseas, out of Scotland. I am not entirely surprised by that, given the immigration rhetoric over the past couple of years and the Brexit decision. Natural change—births minus deaths—did not contribute to population growth: over the same one-year period, there were 7,000 more deaths than births in Scotland.

We want the Scottish Parliament to have the powers to establish a less restrictive immigration policy. It is increasingly clear that the UK Government’s immigration policy does not address our economic, demographic or social needs. There is cross-party support for the reintroduction of a proper post-study work visa that suits Scotland’s needs. It is time for a tailored migration system for Scotland, and the Scottish Government’s discussion paper shows how such a system could operate.

This is not merely politicking, or just a desire to be seen to do the right thing; it is an absolute necessity for Scotland, its people and its economy. As per usual, and as we expect, the Conservatives are blind to Scotland and its needs. I cannot quite manage it, but I really should be grateful, because by both their words and their actions, more people in Scotland now realise that the only way that Scotland will have policies in place to suit Scottish needs, whether on immigration or any other issue, is through independence. That day cannot come quickly enough.