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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:23 pm on 18th May 2020.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General) 5:23 pm, 18th May 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am afraid to say that this is a dreadful Bill that will destroy opportunities for future generations and will split even more families apart. It will result in many thousands of EU nationals losing their rights in this country overnight; it will extend the reach of the hostile environment still further; it will drown thousands of businesses and key industries in red tape and massive fees; and it will deprive our public services of talented and desperately needed workers. It will push different nations and regions of the United Kingdom towards depopulation and drive a wedge between us and our European neighbours. In short, it brings to an end the one part of the UK migration system that works well—the free movement of people. Instead, it expands the reach of the UK’s domestic rules—a complicated mess of burning injustice and bureaucracy—and that is why the SNP, without any hesitation, will be voting against this awful Bill. But this awful Bill was made even worse by its appalling timing. Pushing ahead with it in the midst of a public health and economic crisis, and without paying heed to the recent Windrush review, is spectacularly misjudged and shows that the Home Office remains totally out of touch with reality, and completely out of touch with public opinion.

I turn first to the coronavirus pandemic and I join others in paying tribute to those on the frontline. I pay particular tribute to the migrant workers who are there, including too many who have lost their lives—consultants from Sudan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Uganda and Pakistan, a hospital porter from the Philippines, doctors from Germany and Iraq, nurses from Zimbabwe, Trinidad and South Africa, support workers from India and Ghana, and many, many more. Each and every one deserves our tributes and our gratitude, but the more fitting tribute would be a coherent and robust response to the crisis—one that genuinely seeks to ensure that we are all in this together and doing whatever it takes, but that is not what the Bill provides.

We should have had a Bill that makes it easier, instead of harder, to recruit the NHS, social care and other staff we need, and not one that uses an ill-considered financial threshold as a poor proxy for skill, talent or contribution. It is right that the Home Office has ditched its earlier rhetoric about cheap, low-skilled labour, but it is now time to drop the accompanying policies, too. We should have had a Bill setting out a comprehensive and generous system of visa extensions for those frontline workers and their families, not the piecemeal, back-of-the-envelope scheme that the Home Office has so far cobbled together.

We need a Bill that scraps the minimum income requirements for family visas and suspends other financial thresholds, acknowledging that migrant families and workers have had their incomes slashed, just like too many others. More than 100,000 NHS workers and a huge percentage of care workers are prevented by Home Office financial requirements from being able to sponsor their husbands, wives and children to join them here in the UK. Is it not quite outrageous for the Home Office to say, “Thank you for your hard work, but no thanks to bringing your family”? There is absolutely nothing fair about that.

We need a Bill that uprates the pitiful sums of money that we are providing to asylum seekers in this time of crisis and which ensures that, whatever stage of their asylum journey they are at, they can be properly protected. We need a Bill that ensures that all migrants have at least some form of temporary status and which ends the no recourse to public funds rules that deprive people of the support and accommodation they need to get through this crisis. It is impossible for someone to self-isolate if they do not have a roof over their head or food to eat.

We need a Bill that automatically protects all who are at risk of accidental overstaying until coronavirus is over, that gets people out of immigration detention, and that ends data sharing with the Home Office so that the NHS and other vital services are not places that people in need are afraid to attend. We need a Bill that recognises the absurdity of the NHS surcharge and scraps it for good. We need a Bill that postpones any new immigration system until this pandemic is over and we know the reality of the huge economic challenges ahead.

Employers are justifiably aghast at the fact that the Home Office is attempting to foist a whole new bureaucracy on them now, in the middle of a public health and economic crisis. The Government took four years to finalise their immigration proposals, yet they are giving employers little more than four months to adapt—four of the most difficult months imaginable. The Bill undermines, rather than helps, our response to the coronavirus.

However, it is not just the public health crisis that the Home Office has totally ignored in the Bill—staggeringly, it pays no heed to Windrush either. The Windrush lessons learned review is an incredible indictment of the Department. It talks of Ministers failing to “sufficiently question unintended consequences.” It refers to

“an institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race” that reveals a Department that does not listen to contrary opinions or learn lessons, and where the political culture and pressure to be tough has caused harsh treatment, poor decisions and an absence of empathy for individuals. The Windrush case studies presented by Wendy Williams are enough to make people shake with anger, yet the Bill has not a single trace of recognition of Windrush in it and there are alarming signs that the Department has failed to learn lessons. Its crass and insensitive defence of the discriminatory right-to-rent policy almost makes me wonder whether the review has actually been read. Meanwhile, many of the same voices that warned about Windrush are warning about the fate of tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of EU citizens—old people, young people, looked-after children, care leavers and others—who may not appreciate the need to apply for settled status.

If they truly have learned the lessons of Windrush, the Government should protect EEA nationals properly. They should provide them with automatic rights, not rights contingent on their applying by a certain date; they should provide all with fully settled status and abandon the precarious pre-settled status; they should provide EEA citizens with a physical document as proof of their rights, and they must scrap the right to rent and other discriminatory hostile environment policies. Just as before, the Government seem to be ignoring the warnings; instead, the Bill seeks to give Ministers a blank cheque on future immigration policies. The last thing we should do is give the Home Office any more powers until the lessons of Windrush are properly learned.

There are so many other areas of immigration, asylum and nationality laws that need fixing. There is nothing in the Bill to address the injustices of nationality law, such as the disgraceful fees charged to children who simply want to register their British citizenship, to which they are entitled. There is nothing to fix our broken asylum system —the poverty support rates, the chaotic accommodation contracts, the shambolic move-on period, the ban on work, the restricted family reunion rights, and the loss of Dublin III participation. There is nothing here to address our addiction to immigration detention and the shame of being the only country in Europe without a time limit on detention. There is nothing to address the decimation of appeal rights and legal aid, which has contributed to many injustices, including Windrush.

Time and again, the Home Office has shown that it is so obsessed with numbers that it has totally lost sight of individual workers, students and family members, and the contributions that they make. More and more people will be asking, “Why did we leave immigration policy to the Home Office at all?”

Of course, on the question of who should make migration policy, with every single day of Home Office incompetence and injustice, the case for migration policy for Scotland being made in Scotland grows stronger. We have been reasonable, pragmatic and thorough in building the case, publishing papers and pointing to international best practice, but the Government simply refuse to engage in a grown-up discussion about migration policy being tailored for Scotland.

The risk of population decline and a shrinking labour force and tax base are real and grave issues for Scotland. The future system that this Government have designed is nothing short of a disaster for health and social care, tourism and hospitality, food and drink, agriculture, our universities, and many other key sectors of the Scottish economy. I recognise that it is not just Scotland that the Home Office is throwing under the bus, but other nations and regions of the UK too.

Instead of issuing soundbites and slogans about a system working for all, the Home Office must engage seriously. It must recognise that any system that has the express aim of reducing migration does not just fail to work for Scotland but actively works against Scotland’s interests. This is a rotten Bill, introduced with rotten timing. It is beyond repair and it does not deserve a Second Reading.