It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I will take on board the comments you have just made. If you will permit me, I would like to make a few introductory remarks—at the start of Committee proceedings and before we begin to debate the detail—on the purpose of the clauses.
The Bill delivers the ending of free movement of people and lays the foundations for introducing a fairer, firmer skills-led immigration system. The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest crisis we have faced in our lifetime. We need people, regardless of nationality, to continue coming together, using their skills and expertise to support the United Kingdom’s recovery.
As you will know, Sir Edward, legislating is not an academic exercise; there must be a point to it. The point is that we will introduce a new system by ending preferential treatment for EEA citizens. That will mean a system that prioritises the skills people have to offer and how they will contribute to the United Kingdom, not where their passport comes from.
The Government recognise the tremendous contribution people are making to keep vital services running during this incredibly difficult time and the dedication shown by millions demonstrates to employers the skills and work ethic we have here. Colleagues may well recall that this Bill was introduced in the previous Parliament. There have been no substantial changes to the content since it was previously considered. The only changes made are minor drafting clarifications in places and updates to the list of retained EU law to be repealed.
We remain committed to delivering a points-based immigration system that benefits the whole UK from January 2021. We will open key routes from autumn 2020, so people can start to apply ahead of the system taking effect on
Turning specifically to clause 1, this introduces the first schedule to the Bill, which contains a list of measures to be repealed in relation to the end of free movement and related issues. The clause fulfils a purely mechanistic function to introduce the schedule.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, as we start line-by-line scrutiny of this particularly important legislation in these highly unusual times.
I thank the Minister for his opening speech on clause 1 and schedule 1. Early in proceedings, I want to put on the record my thanks to the Clerk of the Bill Committee. He has been absolutely invaluable to all Committee members with assistance on the amendments and new clauses before us.
I also want to put on the record—I am sure that the Minister will join me, in the spirit of some early unity, as might you, Sir Edward—an expression of our disappointment about the audio arrangements for Tuesday’s evidence session. The poor sound quality was problematic not only on the day, as on occasion exchanges between Members and witnesses were seriously restricted, but for Hansard during the afternoon sitting. Colleagues worked incredibly hard to make that Hansard report available, but, unfortunately, it was not published until after 11 o’clock last night. That made preparations for today’s line-by-line scrutiny based on that evidence incredibly difficult.
That said, I turn to clause 1 and schedule 1. As the Minister is aware, we voted against the Bill on Second Reading, and the clause is the Bill in a nutshell. We will go on to discuss in great detail the various clauses and to outline our reservations at the different stages, but, ultimately, we fear that the Bill—right now, and in this form—holds none of the answers to the problems facing the country and actually stands to exacerbate them.
It is not difficult to see how implementation of the Bill could have severe consequences for the health and social care sector, a point made by several of the witnesses on Tuesday. The sector will require special consideration. The policy statement published in February on what comes after clause 1 specifically comes into effect simply saying to those earning less than £25,600:
“We will…end free movement and not implement a route for lower-skilled workers.”
Many of the people on the frontline fighting the coronavirus earn less than that. We need them now, and we need them to recover. The policy paper and the Minister state that they are looking to the domestic workforce to plug those gaps, but on Tuesday we heard from the Migration Advisory Committee—we can all see and feel this—that systemic failures underpin the problems in social care, and those will not be resolved by January. If we put a hard stop on free movement without having resolved some of those issues, there will be consequences when the country can least afford that.
Concerns about the clause fall into two distinct groups: ensuring that we have done the right thing by the some 3.5 million EU citizens who are already here under free movement rules when those come to an end, and certain groups in particular, and looking ahead to the future impact of restricted migration flows. Since the Bill’s predecessor was presented to the House in the 2017 to 2019 Parliament, the EU settlement scheme has come into effect to give European citizens who reside in the UK a pre-settled and a settled status.
The numbers coming through the scheme are positive, but there are concerns about certain groups, some with specific vulnerabilities. Eligible children in care, for example, are one cohort that we will return to under the new clauses. The impact of coronavirus on Home Office capabilities alone, in addition to its impact on applicants, inevitably has heightened our concerns that some groups will need more support than ever to access the scheme.
Turning to the impact that ending free movement will have on migration flows in key sectors, the Bill provides more questions than answers. It is incredibly narrow in scope, as we have discussed, which is extraordinary given that it will create the biggest change to our immigration system in decades. Instead of putting forward a new immigration system, which Parliament could discuss, debate, amend and improve, the Bill grants powers to Ministers to introduce whatever system they like with extensive Henry VIII powers.
The Government’s February 2020 policy statement indicated what such a system might be like. Properly debating most of that new system will be deemed out of scope for this Bill and this Committee, but we will do what we can within scope to set out principles and solutions for when clause 1 comes into effect.
A number of the witnesses on Tuesday were critical of the Government’s planned £25,600 threshold—not just on health and social care—and transitioning on to a visa system and sponsorship routes will cause headaches and shortages for a range of businesses, exacerbating economic uncertainty. For example, the Bill fails to address the UK’s need for migrant workers to allow the agriculture sector simply to function, which is another issue that we will explore when we debate the new clauses.
To be clear, Labour has no problem with an immigration system that treats all migrants the same, no matter where they come from, but that is not the system the Government propose. A points-based immigration system could be effective. However, it would be predicated on receptive analysis of occupation shortages, parallel education and skills strategies that seek to fill long-term job gaps with domestic talent, and a pragmatic yet empathetic Border Force. The Bill fails to do any of that, and we will seek to remedy this, within the bounds of its scope, through our amendments and new clauses.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, albeit at a longer distance than we are accustomed to. I thank the Clerks for dealing with what were probably some horrendously drafted amendments by the bucketful during the last couple of weeks.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in our detailed line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill. It will be with a sense of déjà vu that I am sure the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston also feels, having sat in the same Public Bill Committee this time last year. The real shame is that, this time last year, nobody listened to a thing that we said, and this Bill is in the same form as it was back then. Looking around the room, however, I see a much more discerning Committee this year, so I am filled with optimism that we may indeed be able to deliver some change.
We have serious concerns; we do not just make things up. As Opposition MPs, we have lots of concerns that stakeholders have raised with us. My preliminary point is that the two previous Immigration Acts that passed all the way through Parliament, in 2014 and 2016, contributed in a very serious and significant way to the Windrush scandal. In her review of what happened, Wendy Williams highlighted all the warnings that came from the same stakeholders about the problems that those Bills would cause. Indeed, she quoted from some of the contributions made by Opposition Members during the passage of the Bills. Hon. Members might not agree with everything we say, but sometimes we are worth listening to, even if we do not manage to achieve change in this Committee. I plead with the Home Office and members of the Committee to engage seriously with the concerns that we are flagging up.
“the Home Office has yet to implement the process of root and branch cultural change necessary in the aftermath of Windrush.”
I hope that, during the passage of the Bill, we receive some signals that the cultural approach of the Home Office, and its attitude to listening, is changing.
Clause 1 is the Bill in microcosm. I will not repeat my entire stage 2 speech, which I am sure hon. Members followed very closely indeed, but I take your advice on scope, Sir Edward. I am sad to say again that the SNP totally opposes clause 1, because it brings to an end what we regard as a valuable, simple and well-functioning immigration system of free movement. As a result, it extends what is a complex, expensive and unjust domestic system to EEA nationals. That is bad for the individuals caught up in it, who will face prohibitive fees, complicated procedures, broken families and diminished rights, but it is also bad for the economy. I do not think that any hon. Member present who paid attention to the evidence that we heard on Tuesday can remain 100% enthusiastic about the Government’s proposals for the immigration system come January. It will be an abject nightmare for many industries that have already been totally decimated by the coronavirus shutdown. We did not even hear from the tourism and hospitality industries, which are at the forefront of facing the challenges.
Clause 1 is also bad for Scotland—for our population growth, demographics, economy and tax base. If the task had been to design an immigration system for Scotland alone, nobody in their right mind would have come up with this one. The same is true—probably even truer—of Northern Ireland, with its land border with a country where free movement will continue. We will explore all these issues as we go through the Bill in more detail and discuss the amendments and new clauses that have been tabled. From my point of view, there is nothing much to celebrate and lots to regret about clause 1, and indeed schedule 1, and we oppose them both.
I will reply briefly. I recognise the position of the Scottish National party on the Bill and on these particular proposals. There is a fundamental difference, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that he is always worth listening to, even when we disagree. He laments the absence of the tourism and hospitality industries on Tuesday. Regardless of our views on the Bill, we all look forward to an era when those industries will be able to think about recruiting again, rather than being in the position that we expect them to be in of significant job losses, including in my constituency, over the coming weeks and months, given the impact of recent weeks.
To turn to the comments of the hon. Member for Halifax, I was listening on Tuesday to the evidence from Professor Brian Bell, interim chair of the MAC, particularly on social care, and I cannot remember him saying that a general route for employers in the social care sector to recruit abroad at or near the minimum wage would be good news for the social care sector. In fact, I think he said precisely the opposite. To be clear, the general salary threshold is being reduced to £25,600, but where an occupation is deemed to be in shortage, it will be subject to a lower salary level of £20,480 a year.
It is also worth pointing out that for more than 20 categories of healthcare professional and allied healthcare professional, their eligibility will be based on the national salary scales paid in the NHS, rather than the general salary scales set out in the wider immigration rules. That is linked to the creation of what we are looking at as a healthcare visa to give fast-track access and reduced fees to people under that scheme. It is important that we keep placing those facts on the record so that people are aware of them, given some of the not very well informed commentary we have seen in the media, such as the claim that nurses will not be eligible, when in fact they will be fast-tracked and prioritised under our system.
I am concerned that the Minister has put words in my mouth in relation to what the MAC said about social care. What we did hear loud and clear from a number of witnesses, however, was that there is no plan to address workforce issues in social care when free movement ends. Is he minded to have specific remedies for social care in his future plans, before we end free movement?
Again, if people think, from what we have seen in the last few weeks, that the remedy for social care is to recruit more people at or near to the minimum wage from abroad, that is an odd conclusion to draw.
We will certainly talk to the Employment Minister. Again, I am conscious of the scope of the Bill and not going off more widely into our labour market strategies.
One conversation I recently had with the Employment Minister was about how, sadly, a lot of people in my constituency, and I am sure in the hon. Lady’s constituency as well, need to find new employment opportunities. Social care, and the healthcare sector more widely, will be part of providing some of those opportunities, not just through entry level jobs, but by ensuring that education, colleges and others are training people towards skilled jobs and providing real career progression.
For me, that is the solution for social care, rather than looking to the migration system as the overall labour market solution. I am sure we all share the sentiment, whatever any of us thinks of ending free movement, that the sector needs to be more invested in and more valued, and that there need to be clearer paths of career progression that people can see when they are deciding what they want to do for a job and a career.
I am conscious, Sir Edward, of what you said about the scope of the Bill. We could have an interesting discussion about the overall labour market strategy, but for now, this is a focused debate about why clause 1 is important and delivers the core of what the Bill is about.