Immigration Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 10th February 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:30 pm, 10th February 2014

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the Bill and for meeting me, my noble friend Lord Rosser and the former Immigration Minister last week. We know that there is considerable concern about immigration and we appreciate that at times its pace has been too fast. The duty of government is to manage immigration in a way that is fair and just to citizens and fair and just to those who wish to live and work in the UK. Even though we support some of the measures in the Bill, it does not tackle the issues that could really make a difference and are of the greatest concern. A number of the measures fall in what could be called the realm of unintended consequences in that they have a significant and disproportionate effect on law-abiding British citizens, legal visitors, and visa holders who are an asset and contribute positively to the UK.

The Government’s policy of managing and reducing migration is deeply flawed. Their net migration target is a measure for success, but does not target the right things. It means that highly qualified UK professionals who leave to work abroad are classed as a government success. Fee-paying students, including those studying for doctorates and undertaking valuable research, who no longer come to the UK but now pay fees to study and develop research in other European countries, are also classed as a success. That is not our definition of a successful, well managed immigration policy. It is not just about numbers. It is about people and the contribution that they make, and also our international humanitarian obligations, such as in the case of Syrian refugees fleeing horror, torture and rape.

We are in total agreement that we need to tackle illegal immigration. We need to do more to ensure that foreign criminals are deported, but illegal immigration is getting worse and the Government appear to have been remarkably lax in tackling it. Just last week Judge Richard Bray said that the Home Office and the Border Force were “hopelessly undermanned”, which had led to an Albanian national who, having been convicted of drugs and violent offences, was imprisoned and then deported three times on three separate occasions—and yet each time he returned to the UK to reoffend.

That is where real, determined and effective action needs to be taken. The number of foreign criminals deported has fallen by more than 13%, from 5,471 to 4,700. Between 2011 and 2012 the number of businesses fined for using illegal workers plummeted by nearly half, from 2,269 to just 1,215. So under this Government the number of people stopped from entering the UK at our borders has halved, the number of people removed for breaking the rules is down by 7%, and only half as many businesses have been fined for employing illegal workers. Either the extent of the problem has been vastly reduced under this Government or they are incompetent in managing our borders and addressing the problem of illegal immigration.

The response of the Government is not to look at tackling the problem at source. It is not to seek in this field to manage borders effectively and combat people trafficking. It is not to examine whether the Government have deployed adequate resources or made cuts to the bone, making it harder for immigration officials to do their jobs. The Government’s response is this Bill. It is in effect to outsource their responsibility for illegal immigration to landlords and nurses, for example. We have said time and again that the Government’s focus in dealing with immigration is wrong and ineffective on illegal immigration. That leads to greater exploitation and abuse of migrants, has a far greater negative impact on the UK as a whole and undermines public confidence. So while the Government have deliberately presided over a massive fall in the number of university students paying to study in the UK, students who contribute intellectually and financially, they have been totally ineffective in tackling the shocking abuse in student visitor visas, as highlighted in tonight’s “Panorama” programme.

There are real concerns about some of the measures in the Bill but we have grave concerns about what is not in the Bill. Where are the measures that would really make an impact on illegal immigration? Where are the measures to protect workers from being undercut on wages or being put at risk from lax working conditions, or from gang masters exploiting the weak and desperate to work?

We welcome a sensible debate about managed migration and immigration and its impact on the lives of citizens and migrants. Where measures are sensible they will have our support. For example, we all want to see stronger action against sham marriages. We will apply three tests to the Government’s proposals. First, we will look at the evidence base for the proposals that the Government are bringing forward. Secondly, we will look at the practicality, workability and proportionality of the proposed measures. Thirdly, we will look at the effectiveness and impact of those proposals, including on the wider population. For example, the Government claim that their measures to tackle illegal immigration by in effect co-opting landlords as immigration officials will reduce the housing available for illegal immigrants and therefore increase the number leaving the country. However, they also admit that the costs exceed the benefits that they can quantify and they have no idea how many illegal immigrants would be affected. They have no idea whether there would be any impact on the number of homes available to rent.

The Bill is clear that landlords should not act in a discriminatory way. How is that going to work in practice? Most landlords already undertake checks. The Residential Landlords Association fears that:

“Landlords will have to cover their backs and avoid accusations of discrimination by examining identity documents of all potential tenants”.

Will all potential tenants need to have a passport with them? What about the 17% of British citizens who do not have a passport? What other documents will be acceptable? How will landlords know what documents they should use and recognise? What about the woman fleeing a violent home who does not have access to any documentation to prove her citizenship? What about students who, although studying here legally, will be unable to present their passports to prospective landlords until they are in-country but need to arrange accommodation before they arrive?

As conscientious as law-abiding landlords will be, the Government know that it is possible to get it wrong and make a mistake. When the Minister, Mark Harper, employed his cleaner, he was confident that he had undertaken the appropriate checks on her nationality. He is an intelligent man. He knows the law and would have done his utmost to comply with it. But he made a mistake. He got it wrong. How many landlords could make a similar mistake? If the Immigration Minister can so easily get it wrong, how can the Government possibly think that each and every landlord in this country, whether renting 100 properties or, to echo the point of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, just one, is qualified to act as an immigration official? Good legislation has to work in practice, which is why we will table amendments for a UK-wide pilot to be undertaken and will forensically question the Government on this and other measures.

Clauses 33 and 34 on health are narrower than the Government’s spin doctors have implied, and indeed narrower than what the Government have already produced proposals on, including charging for access to GPs to tackle what Ministers call “health tourism”. These proposals are more limited but still require further examination. Clause 33 makes provision for a new charge as a condition of certain visas and Clause 34 redefines who is liable for charges—that is those without indefinite leave to remain.

The principle that visitors to this country who are not entitled to free healthcare can be charged by the NHS is already established but, according to the Bill, the money collected via the visa system does not go directly towards NHS healthcare but to the Consolidated Fund. The Minister said that it would go to special projects. I do not know whether the Government will be bringing forward an amendment to that effect. Bizarrely, this could lead to greater costs and less income for the NHS if you take into account that a number of those would pay or have insurance. The Government now intend to replace this with a visa charge that will not do direct to the NHS. It would be helpful to develop further in Committee how that charge will go to the NHS and what it could be used for if it cannot be used for their treatment. Will redefining those liable to pay mean that those legally working in this country and paying taxes will also have to pay for healthcare? There are a number of areas to probe further in Committee on access to services.

There are two further issues I wish to raise with the Minister today. The first is in Part 2. Clause 11 removes the right of appeal for First-tier Tribunal cases. We know the system is a mess. Successive reports from the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration have highlighted problems. There are serious delays and the quality of decision-making is poor. The most recent statistics reveal that 32% of deportation decisions and 49% of entry clearance decisions were successful appealed last year. These are cases where the Home Office got it wrong, but instead of trying to address the initial decision-making problems, the Government are now seeking to remove the right to appeal these wrong decisions. I think the Minister said that they want to get it right the first time. That is right, but what happens is that the Government do not like losing appeals so they want to abolish them. If we get decisions right the first time, there would be no need for so many appeals. Given that the Government’s own estimate of the cost of the new system of judicial review that they seek to put in place is around £100 million, would it not be better to put more effort and resources into getting the initial decision right?

When this Bill was debated in the other place, just 24 hours before Report a new amendment was tabled by the Government, which has now become Clause 60 of this Bill, on deprivation of citizenship. Currently, Governments can remove citizenship from individuals in certain circumstances but only if they have citizenship of another country so that they are not left stateless. The Government’s new proposals remove that condition so that the Home Secretary can deprive a naturalised citizen of their citizenship if the Home Secretary is satisfied that it is conducive to the public good as that person has conducted themselves in a manner prejudicial to British interests.

We accept that there can be a problem with those who become naturalised British citizens as adults and then abuse that right and may not even live in the UK, but there are serious questions, including those about the impact on national and international security, that must be addressed as it is a very extensive and significant power to give to a Secretary of State. We will table an amendment that this clause should include judicial oversight.

Our approach to this Bill will be to support sensible, practical measures. We will question those measures that appear ill thought out, unworkable or place disproportionate burdens on law-abiding citizens without seriously addressing the real problems. We will suggest improvements where we consider the measures proposed are fundamentally flawed and we will propose new measures that really could help tackle problems of illegal immigration. I hope that the Government will listen.