Extent, commencement and short title

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 28th February 2019.

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Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security) 2:00 pm, 28th February 2019

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I rise to speak to amendment 21 and to support new clause 36—after a brief difference of opinion this morning, it is nice to be back on the same side as the SNP.

Rights mean very little without the means to enforce them. The amendment would put in place a provision regarding legal aid, without which we say the repeal of the retained EU law relating to free movement should not happen. In other words, clause 1 would come into force only in the circumstances set out in the amendment.

Let me say briefly about the EU settlement scheme that the provision of a right to appeal and the legal aid necessary to enforce it would remove any uncertainty about whether there was scrutiny of those decisions. The complexity of the scheme means that errors may well be made, and a right of appeal is the optimum way to secure legal entitlements.

Returning specifically to the amendment, cuts to legal aid are a huge issue for enforcement, but they are also a potential problem with respect to the lawyer who eventually has a case. That is not to suggest that junior lawyers and fee earners in some lower categories do not do an excellent job. They do, but it obviously cannot be fair for a more junior lawyer, or a lawyer without the requisite expertise, to end up taking a case simply on the basis of the money available, without regard to the necessary experience and expertise.

Cost is a huge problem. The withdrawal of legal aid means that, to get before a tribunal with a robust bundle of evidence that gives them some chance of being granted an appeal, people often have to find thousands of pounds—£1,000, £2,000 or perhaps even £3,000. That is the cost simply for getting a bundle of evidence together to go before a tribunal, before even considering whether there is a remote chance of success. All too often, people just cannot afford that.

The amendment, which relates to new clause 36, specifically seeks the provision of legal aid to assist European economic area and Swiss nationals with immigration matters. The context for the amendment is the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which, on the commencement of its civil legal aid provisions on 1 April 2013, largely removed non-asylum immigration advice and representation from the scope of legal aid in England and Wales. Clearly, the ending of rights by clause 1 and schedule 1 will significantly extend the impact of the legal aid cuts made by the 2012 Act by fully subjecting EEA and Swiss nationals and their family members to the immigration system and requiring them to have leave to enter or remain in the UK.

Complexity is not the only reason why the general removal of legal aid for immigration advice and representation is of profound concern. I am grateful to Amnesty International for its thorough briefing, which sets out its concerns. The reality is that substantial evidential hurdles exist for anyone who is seeking to establish rights to private and family life in the UK and measures for the best interests of children. Even if someone who is representing themselves—a litigant in person—understands relevant legal requirements and procedures, they will still have to assess, collect and present the evidence that is required to demonstrate that the rules and other requirements are met. The issue is not only that it is a daunting task and prohibitively expensive, but that the tribunal system is simply not set up to help someone in that situation. Worse still, it is a false economy, because there is no doubt whatever that the provision of a lawyer who is expert in the field will speed up the proceedings, as opposed to the proceedings being slowed down because a number of people have to represent themselves before the tribunal.

The Government have said that they wish to avoid another Windrush scandal. In that case, they would do well to accept this amendment. I should just draw attention to the fact that I was a practising barrister before I entered Parliament and I remain a non-practising barrister. For completeness, I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in that regard. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment.