Immigration Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:43 pm on 10th February 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat 3:43 pm, 10th February 2014

My Lords, is there any area of policy more prone to misinformation and misrepresentation than immigration? As the Minister said, one of our tasks in looking at the Bill will be to be clear what it is and is not about. We also have a number of other objectives, including scrutinising and questioning the whole spectrum from probing to opposition and from seeking assurances on issues of concern to ensuring that what we end up with is workable in practice. I suggest that we have another objective, which is to provide leadership on the issue of immigration. I say that because immigration is so often a proxy for xenophobia and discrimination and it behoves us to argue for what we regard as morally right and to concern ourselves also with why the subject of immigration provokes such intense reactions. We need to unpack what underlies the hostility and sometimes the fear.

It appears that although very many people say that immigration is a problem, far fewer regard it as a problem in their own area. There is considerable overestimating of the numbers of migrants, and of the numbers of migrants claiming benefits, so leadership must include bringing reality and perception a great deal closer. One of the realities is the enormous benefit Britain derives, and has derived, from migration. I have always disliked the term “brightest and best”, because it implies some sort of narrow limited categories, but I am in no doubt that migration is important for Britain’s success. In an interconnected world, Britain will be best placed as a country of one society but many cultures. So I abhor some of the rhetoric that we hear, and am distressed by some of the messages taken from that rhetoric.

This is one of those Bills where it is impossible at this stage to cover, or even refer to, all of the issues. Nor is it possible to do justice to the considerable amount of briefing that we have all received. Through the medium of Hansard I say to all those who have contacted us that not repeating their points does not mean that they are ignored. The detail will come in the days to follow, and my Liberal Democrat colleagues—there are 12 or 13 of them—will be among those who will deal with different issues both today and during the course of our debates. As so often, it is the practice as well as the policy which is important. Your Lordships have already touched on this. We know that the Government are well aware of the importance of improving the standard of service—because it is a service—as well as the mechanics of border control and all aspects of immigration.

I do not imagine that it is a lot of fun working in the Immigration Service. Upskilling, and recognition of the professionalism needed, could go towards better decision-making. We require immigration officers to deal with high volumes, high stakes and constantly changing rules. Every noble Lord will have heard tales of poor decisions which have caused at best, delay; at worst, considerable distress and injustice. Capturing useful and accurate data is obviously important in itself and because of the misperceptions to which I have referred. It will take a while for exit checks to give a full picture of who is here, who is leaving and what they have done in the mean time. This is not least because peoples’ activities change over the years. However I very much welcome the progress on this score.

The presentation of data is also important. Student numbers, we know, will be an issue. I am one who regards the education sector as a very important export. We import students, but we export contacts, networks and reputation. We are required, internationally, to include students in the overall numbers, but I understand from discussion with the Minister that we publish student numbers separately. Those in a position to be clear about immigration do not seem to be energetic in trying to ensure the disaggregation of the figures. The disaggregated figures do not get the media coverage which would help us all.

Still on the theme of reality and perception, one point I want to make on health charges is the importance of not deterring people from seeking care and treatment to which they are entitled. This is because the message is inaccurate. The headline is the levy. This is a comparatively small charge, not requiring complicated administration, and is a good deal lower that any insurance premium than I have ever come across. But we need to look at what the entitlements are, at fairness and effectiveness, including ensuring accessibility for vulnerable individuals, and public health concerns. Migrants do not usually fit neatly into a couple of easily dealt with categories, and the most vulnerable, the most in need of healthcare, are likely to be the most easily deterred from seeking it.

Early proposals for the health service were cumbersome, bureaucratic and thought likely to give rise to more problems than solutions. It is fair to say that the Bill has gone a long way towards giving assurances on all of this—indeed there have been changes in the progress of this. But it is also fair to say that we have a way to go on giving reassurances regarding residential tenancies. I welcome the piloting of the provisions—and I do mean a pilot—with evaluation and assessment, not simply the first phase of a predetermined rollout. I would be interested to see how the nationwide pilot to which the noble Baroness referred would work. Evaluation must extend to the unintended consequences, which may easily mean driving underground people who are too easily exploited.

There is a lot in this Bill for our lawyers and for everyone concerned with human rights to get their teeth into—and there are some real terriers among them. I have long thought that an immigration system that requires so much legal assistance is not a good one. Greater simplicity and clarity must be desirable, but whether the change to the appeals system falls on the right side of the line is something that we will have to test. To me, it is logical to use review rather than appeal if review gets the job done—assuming that it is not properly done in the first place. But we need to understand how administrative review is both different from and better than the current arrangements. I note, of course, that appeals currently achieve a very high success rate, which must say something. We will discuss, too, out-of-country appeals. It must be more difficult to ensure justice when communication is more difficult. The rationale for changing the appeals regime is to rationalise and simplify it, which is not the same as reducing rights.

I am quite sure that the Bill will not do the courts out of a job. Some of the rhetoric around this that I find offensive is the criticism of lawyers—but perhaps I would say that. I do not want to go too far in questioning the phrase in the new clause on deprivation of citizenship,

“seriously prejudicial to vital interests”.

I had thought “vital” was about life and very existence, but I shall not question that too closely because I do not want to suggest lowering the threshold for executive decisions when innocence is not presumed. As well as the central proposition we will want to understand the consequences of such decisions for the individual and his family, both legally and practically, and how the decision will make the individual less of a threat.

There are many areas where humanitarian and cost considerations coincide, and immigration detention is one of them. I was intrigued to read of the Swedish model, based on engagement rather than enforcement, with apparently a very high rate of voluntary return and financial savings. On the theme of what is right, I look forward to statutory provisions regarding child detention. I want to put on record how impressed I was when I visited Cedars by the obvious good work undertaken there by Barnardo’s, which has my admiration for having taken that work on. It cannot have been an easy decision for that charity. This House can be relied on to concern itself with everything that affects children.

My final topic for today concerns both children and adults. The Minister will not be surprised that I take the opportunity of the Bill to raise again the family migration rules introduced in 2012 with new financial thresholds for sponsoring the entry of non-EEA partners and elderly dependants. There is an extraordinary range of circumstances in which British citizens and taxpayers have found themselves, maintaining relationships through Skype, if they can, and the impact on children separated from parents would defy even those who feared the worst when the rules were introduced.

People who come to our country do not fit a single picture. The irregular migrant population is a very diverse group. Some are in low-paid occupations in the informal economy, while some contribute far more to the UK economy through labour, taxes and spending than they take out in services. Who are illegal immigrants, of course, begs the question of what we choose to make illegal.

This may not be a Bill that either coalition partner would have chosen if left to itself, but I end by repeating that, on this multifaceted area of policy, the reputation of the UK—whom it welcomes and whom it protects, including the indigenous population—as well as the language and rhetoric that it uses are at stake.