Immigration and Asylum

– in the House of Commons at 2:37 pm on 22 May 2024.

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Votes in this debate

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 2:41, 22 May 2024

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the annual approval by the House of Commons of maximum numbers in respect of immigration and asylum;
to provide that asylum may only be granted to individuals identified as refugees by the UN Refugee Agency, other than in specified circumstances;
and for connected purposes.

I am delighted to be bringing in this Bill. The British people want Parliament and their representatives to get to grips with immigration, both illegal and legal. That is a widespread conviction held by constituents across parties and across regions. According to YouGov, 64% of voters think immigration has been too high over the last 10 years, and only 6% believe it has been too low. On the Island, according to my most recent survey of 2,000 constituents, it is the second most important issue after the NHS. My Bill helps to reinforce parliamentary sovereignty, encourages transparency in decision making and focuses responsibility on Members of Parliament, and in doing so helps to restore faith in Government and in Parliament.

We have made a considerable success of immigration in the past 50 years, in the post-war period, and there is an accepted case that moderate migration is a good thing for our country. I am hugely proud to be English and British, but I am half-immigrant myself; I do not necessarily think of myself often in those terms, but my mum ended up in Dresden in a displaced persons camp after world war two. For two centuries, her ancestors came from the Russian empire. They were a mix of German and, as I understand it, Polish and Ukrainian ancestry and farmed near Zhitomir, 60 miles west of Kyiv. The other half of me is solidly English.

Wherever we come from, however, there is a shared sense that migration should be moderate and controlled. This Government are doing more than any other in recent years; we hear today that the removals of illegal people are up 25%. The Rwanda scheme is due to start later this year, whatever people think of it, and we have growing numbers of return agreements with other nations, but I think we need something more permanent, because all of that requires political will.

For me, the only way that ultimately we will solve this issue and give our voters and our constituents confidence in it is for Parliament to take responsibility on itself to set annual legal limits for legal migration, including for asylum. The only way MPs will be serious about this issue is if we have to look our constituents in the eye and explain our actions. There will be no hiding behind quangos or behind agencies.

My Bill would require the Government to present a figure or range of figures to Parliament. MPs would have access to the same data, so that we and the British people could see what each figure would deliver in terms of costs and benefits and what the effect would be on housing, on public services, on the economy and on social cohesion. It is extraordinary that the debate has happened thus far without reference to many of those important issues, as if somehow immigration can be debated without talking about housing, education or healthcare provision.

Either way, at the end of the day, MPs will own that figure and they will have to explain it to their constituents. That is called democracy, and in my mind it is a good thing. If there are emergencies, such as Hong Kong or Ukraine, Ministers can come back and ask for a waiver for specific numbers, in line with our international obligations. The critical point here is that I am not stipulating a figure or plucking one out of thin air. This is the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, which I would have thought we should all as parliamentarians want to support.

In theory, the Labour party could say, “We want 1 million-plus a year on migration.” The Lib Dems—they are meant to be here to oppose this Bill, but they are so concerned about it that I cannot see a single one of them here to speak in opposition—or the SNP, who are here in force, could suggest 2 million. In theory, Parliament can decide what it wants; this Bill is about giving power back to Parliament.

For me, this debate touches on wider issues about parliamentarians passing their powers and responsibilities to others. In scandal after scandal, we see experts failing and politicians effectively having to cover for them, whether it is the Post Office scandal or the contaminated blood scandal. The answer is not less power to Parliament, or more quangos or experts; it is more debate, more scrutiny and more transparency, so that people can see what is happening in their name, and they can test and judge the people who make those decisions.

Granted, if there were a Conservative Government, the practical outcome of my Bill would be to lower legal migration from its current levels to something—dare I say it—in line with our manifesto commitments. However, it would also allow greater thought on what our nation wants and needs. My hon. Friend Neil O'Brien and my right hon. Friend Robert Jenrick, in their excellent Centre for Policy Studies report, demolished many of the lazy arguments about migration, such as that it is automatically associated with economic growth—arguably, the era of mass migration has seen slower economic growth per capita. We know it exacerbates pressure on social and other housing and health services. By historical standards, our build rate is pretty healthy at the moment, but it is dwarfed because of the high net migration.

My Bill would force us to think whether we really need to grant visas for jobs British people could do with encouragement or higher wages. One of the great ironies of this debate is that large-scale immigration comes at the price of suppressing wages of some of the poorest people in this country. One would have thought that the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Labour party, who profess to care for working people, would consider some of those arguments. Rather than hoovering up computer programmers, doctors, dentists and care workers from other countries, why not train up some more ourselves?

My Bill would also make civil servants think more carefully about getting the numbers correct. The Department of Health and Social Care forecast that 6,000 people would use the health and social care visa route. In fact, 146,000 people did last year, with 203,000 dependants—a population one and a half times the size of Portsmouth. We need to think about the impact of the decisions we are making when civil servants are getting the numbers so phenomenally, dramatically wrong.

I would like to touch briefly on asylum as well. We have granted asylum to nearly half a million people since 2015—an extraordinary number. There are nine safe and legal routes into this country; there were 10 at the time, because that included Syria. However, to prevent a pull factor and to ensure that people have confidence that refugees are refugees, I would like this Bill to have all refugees coming via United Nations programmes.

I do not think that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees behaved particularly well on the Rwanda ruling, but it is still the only global body that looks after refugees. My plan would see our country take only bona fide UN-approved refugees that come from genuinely war-torn areas. Again, that would strengthen people’s confidence in the system and give the added benefit of cutting back on our own asylum system, which, I am sad to say, is increasingly unfit for purpose. What sane system gives 50% of people from Albania asylum when they come from a safe European country? It is simply not credible.

My Bill enhances democracy, accountability and transparency—that is certainly its intention. I am grateful that SNP Members have turned up, and I wish the Liberals had—apparently they were also going to speak against the motion—but I say respectfully to those who oppose the Bill that they are opposing parliamentary scrutiny, opposing the handing back of powers to Members of Parliament and opposing transparency, and they are setting themselves against the will of the people of Scotland and Britain. We need more transparency in our national decision making; we need to question civil servants and experts more, not less; and we need greater scrutiny and a bigger role for Parliament to allow MPs and the public a level of scrutiny that enables good government. That is the purpose of the Bill: to give Parliament the power to set migration numbers.

The British people want a fair but robust immigration system. They are right. My new law would deliver that and ensure that we, Members of Parliament, are answerable to our people.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:51, 22 May 2024

I stand to speak to this motion on behalf of the SNP—but not on behalf of the Lib Dems, who have clearly chickened out and run away, and not for the first time.

I am very proud to say that I support immigration, which is an economic good. We thank people for coming here and contributing their best talents and skills to this country—they contribute so very much. It is an act of absolutely bizarre economic damage to try to restrict their numbers in the way that Bob Seely has set out in his ten-minute rule motion.

The issue that we have had for many years in Scotland has been emigration, not immigration. Immigration is an essential part of a thriving economy. Scotland is set to experience considerable population decline in the absence of net international migration, and that will have a significant impact on our economy, because the people who come to work here contribute. They pay the pensions of our older people, they look after people, and they contribute and bring their skills to our economy. They are welcome and we should not tell them otherwise.

The hon. Member’s Bill, in seeking to put a cap on the number of people coming, should really be entitled the “Cutting off our nose to spite our face” Bill. A cap on numbers is entirely illogical and impractical. If he said the cap was 1,000 people, he would shut the door on the 1,001st, regardless of what talent and skills they may bring and the economic benefits or otherwise they may generate. That is absolutely illogical. He mentioned that people bring him their concerns about migration, but the evidence is that people consistently get migration numbers wrong. It is our job as MPs to inform people, not to pander to some of their worst prejudices.

It is also the case that people in areas with the lowest migration seem bizarrely to fear it most, whereas those who are fortunate enough to live in constituencies such as Glasgow Central welcome migration because they see its benefits. It is absolutely bizarre. In work published in recent days, Migration Policy Scotland says that people’s views of migration remain more positive than negative. The hon. Member does not speak for us when he talks about the will of the people of Scotland. He does not and cannot speak for the people of Scotland, who thank those who come here to work and contribute in whichever way they do.

The hon. Member also talked about pressure on health services. Again, the reality is that we are more likely to be treated by a migrant than to be in the queue next to one. People come here to work in our health and social care sector, and we thank them for it, because the sector faces significant shortages and we need them desperately. It is not the case that people migrating to this country suppress wage growth. In fact, countries with higher immigration than us have higher wage growth than the pathetic and insipid wage growth that broke Brexit Britain has had, so he is wrong about that.

We have significant labour shortages in the UK as a result of the Conservatives’ ridiculous Brexit policies. The Office for National Statistics says that a third of UK businesses are experiencing labour shortages, which has an impact on productivity. Sectors such as hospitality, farming, health and social care, professional services and scientific and technical services are crying out for skills—skills that we do not have. If the hon. Member had come here to argue for further investment in education and universities, which the Tories have cut back over many years, I would have been interested in that argument, but that is not what he is saying. He is saying, “Turn off the tap and everything will be fine,” which could not be further from the truth.

Let me turn to the point about the graduate visa and international students. My Glasgow Central constituency is the one that most benefits from international students. I see very clearly that international students bring significant benefit. There has been much chat about the graduate visa and, although the Migration Advisory Committee did not approve of its introduction in the first place, it has said that the UK Government should keep it. Unlike any other UK Government policy, that one has actually been a roaring success, having met and exceeded its targets, so of course, perversely, Tory Members want to scrap it. You couldnae make this up.

The changes that the Conservatives have made in removing dependants from visas have already knocked 0.5% off our GDP. If they continue down that road, they will see further economic damage, as well as significant damage to our educational institutions, because the fact that those institutions require international students has been built into their model over many years. The policy also benefits our students, who can sit next to international students in classes, and learn from them and grow. International students bring so much by way of their experience, as well as helping financially.

The UK is already 300,000 workers short as a result of the Conservatives’ damaging Brexit policies. That shortfall is not being made up because of the poor decisions that the Government are making in pursuing the end of free movement, which the Labour party also believes in. They are damaging the economy of Scotland, which did not vote for Brexit, because of their ideological obsession.

The hon. Member has talked about the role of the UNHCR. I am not sure that he has actually spoken to the UNHCR, because what he has described is not its job—that is not what it does. Its role is not to determine who is a refugee and who is not. In very limited circumstances, the UNHCR operates a resettlement policy, but it says itself that resettlement is “the rare exception”: it is available to fewer than 1% of refugees worldwide, and a very small number have arrived in the UK through resettlement programmes. That is why we have an asylum system in the country just now. It is very poorly run, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to make an argument about reforming the Home Office and its terrible policies, I would support him, but that is not what he is saying. He seems to be suggesting that the Home Office’s immigration policy areas should be removed altogether and handed over to an international organisation to determine. Again, I do not think that is quite what he means, but that is what he is saying.

The UNCHR has a very important role. It carries out international functions; it has also very damningly criticised the UK Government’s immigration policies, including the Rwanda plans and others. However, the hon. Gentleman is asking the UNHCR to do a job that is not its job, which just points to the ludicrousness and unenforceability of the Bill that he seeks to introduce today. It is simply not practical.

The Bill speaks to a very small and narrow group of people within the Conservative party and in the rest of the UK: people who want to close the doors, pull up the drawbridge and let nobody into little Brexit Britain. The hon. Gentleman does not speak for Scotland. Scotland wants to be part of the world and to decide these policies for ourselves—yes, to have a migration policy that decides who comes in and who does not, but not to shut the door, nor to pretend that by doing so, Britain will somehow be some special little land that it once was.

Britain has always welcomed people from around the world, and also has a legacy of going out into the world—empire and everything else. We have those links. We want Scotland to be that international country, but Britain is holding us back, preventing us from allowing people into our country and having the migration policy that we need. I have supported the devolution of migration policy, but I cannot wait for the day when we get full control over all policies, so that Scotland’s economy and future can be in Scotland’s hands, rather than those of a Westminster Government who do not see our needs, do not recognise what we as a country want, and do not speak for us, either at home or on the international stage.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

Division number 157 Immigration and asylum: Ten Minute Rule Motion

Aye: 74 MPs

No: 49 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


The House divided: Ayes 74, Noes 49.

Question accordingly agreed to.


That Bob Seely, Robert Jenrick, Danny Kruger, Marco Longhi, Lia Nici, Nick Fletcher, Dr Caroline Johnson, Sir Edward Leigh and Henry Smith present the Bill.

Bob Seely accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 14 June, and to be printed (Bill 223).