New Clause 23 - Safe and legal routes

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 4th November 2021.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must, within 30 days of the date of Royal Assent to this Act and annually thereafter, publish a report on—

(a) all current safe and legal asylum routes to the United Kingdom,

(b) the eligibility criteria for legal entry into the United Kingdom, and

(c) details of the application process.

(2) The Secretary of State must publish a report on its resettlement target of refugees per year, and report on this every year.”— (Paul Blomfield.)

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish a summary of safe and legal routes to refuge in the UK each year, alongside their eligibility criteria and application process. It would also commit the UK and Secretary of State to publishing its resettlement targets, and reporting on this annually.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause raises an issue central to the Bill and tests the Government’s commitment. Ministers here and elsewhere have consistently argued that their objective for this legislation is to break the business model for the people smugglers, to stop dangerous journeys across the channel and instead to offer those fleeing war and persecution safe and legal routes to refuge in the UK. As the Opposition side have said many times, we endorse those objectives. What we have been doing over the past few weeks is looking at how the Bill achieves them.

We know that the Government’s own assessment of their proposals suggests that they will probably fail; the impact assessment they conducted went so far as to point out that they would probably be counterproductive. Obviously, the Government have brushed that evidence aside, but there is a real concern that there is a fundamental deceit at the core of the Bill, which is that the Government are not serious about offering the safe and legal alternatives.

The new clause is not particularly radical or ambitious; it simply requires the Home Secretary to publish a report on all current safe and legal routes, who is eligible and how people can apply. It would provide transparency and help the Home Office, because it would be able to point to a credible alternative to the dangerous journeys that we all want to discourage. Currently, however, that is not the case: the schemes that the UK has open—the UKRS and the Afghan citizen resettlement scheme—have little detail in the public domain and little guidance on the eligibility criteria or the process for application. I remind the Committee of the point I made earlier: in the first half of this year, only 310 people were resettled under the UK resettlement scheme. The recently published details of the Afghan scheme frankly offer little hope for those to whom the Prime Minister made grand promises about “every effort” and “open arms” back in August.

I remind the Minister that, while the Government promote the generosity of the UK and, as we have touched on previously, we should welcome every effort that has been made to support those fleeing war and persecution, in 2019, Germany resettled more than three times as many refugees as the UK; 1.5% of Germany’s population are refugees, in comparison with 0.65% in France, 0.45% in the Netherlands and 0.19% in the UK, according to the World Bank. We are not middle ranking, as I think the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said at one stage; we have traditionally been middle ranking, but under this Government we have been falling behind.

By accepting the new clause and publishing information about resettlement routes, the Home Office can at least be honest about the resettlement it is prepared to offer, and to whom. We as a Committee have read the evidence shared from Safe Passage International, which included some examples of people such as Jabir and Ahmed. Jabir is an unaccompanied child in northern France who is desperate to rejoin his family in the UK. He is willing to risk the channel to be reunited with his loved ones. His family have already lost a young family member to the treacherous crossing, so they are desperate to find a way for Jabir to be reunited with them, but it does not exist. While he would have had a clear case under Dublin III, there is no clear route for him now.

Meanwhile, 15-year-old Ahmed is stranded alone in France after fleeing Afghanistan. He desperately wants to be reunited with his brother, who was granted asylum in the UK and is now a young business owner. Under the UK’s current rules, the brothers would find it extremely difficult to reunite. If Ahmed’s parents were in the UK, the process would be straightforward, but tragically his brother is his only remaining family member. Ahmed is in an extremely vulnerable situation; he suffers from trauma and struggles enormously with the loss of his family. Being reunited with his brother is his only option to feel safe and to build a better future. I hope that in responding to these comments, the Minister will outline specifically what options for safe passage are, or are planned to be, available for those two boys.

We need transparency about how people can seek refuge in the UK, to bolster our global reputation and provide clarity to those seeking asylum, but also for all those in this country involved in welcoming and supporting those who come. Therefore, the new clause would also require the Home Secretary to publish her resettlement targets each year. I do not suggest a number; I simply suggest that the Government should reflect on it and publish one. While we are talking about numbers, it is perhaps worth noting as a reference—we talk about global leadership—that President Biden has committed the United States to an annual resettlement quota of 125,000 refugees. The equivalent in the UK would be around 25,000. The Government talk a lot about global Britain, but—

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

The hon. Member endorses my comments, I am pleased to hear.

If the Government are serious about their words, they need to be honest about where our ambition lies in this area and how we will provide sanctuary for those who need it. As I say, that leadership and transparency on resettlement targets would not only allow safe and legal routes to ensure that those in great need can come to the UK for protection; it would also, taken alongside the discussion we had earlier about more equitable arrangements for distribution, inform local councils, our healthcare system, schools and social services how they can plan effectively to receive and welcome and integrate into our country those seeking refuge. I hope that the Government will accept the new clause.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central for tabling new clause 23, which would require the Government to publish an annual summary of safe and legal routes to refuge in the UK, including eligibility criteria and application process, and to report on their resettlement targets for each year. The UK has a long history of supporting refugees in need of protection and we are a global leader in resettlement.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I am curious to know how the Minister sustains that line about the UK’s being a global leader when all the statistics published by the Home Office and others demonstrate that we are not—we are a laggard.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman and I simply do not concur on this point. The simple truth is that this country is generous in the opportunities that it provides for people seeking sanctuary, and that will continue to be the case. We have had many debates on that point in this Committee, and I personally believe that that is beyond any doubt whatever.

Our resettlement schemes have provided safe and legal routes for tens of thousands of people to start new lives in the UK. Overall, since 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 refugees direct from regions of conflict and instability, more than any EU member state. We can be proud as a country of our ambitious commitments and achievements.

On 25 February 2021, we completed our commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. That achievement was made possible because of the outstanding commitment of local authorities, the devolved Administrations, non-governmental organisations, our international partners, community and faith groups, and individual members of the public.

The UK continues to welcome refugees through the global UK resettlement scheme, as well as through the community sponsorship and mandate resettlement schemes. That commitment, alongside a fair and firm asylum system, will ensure that we continue to offer safe and legal routes to the UK for vulnerable refugees in need of protection.

Through the new plan for immigration, we have been clear that this Government will continue to provide safe refuge to those in need, ensuring that our resettlement schemes are accessible, fair and responsive to international crises. This has been evident with the Home Office being at the heart of the UK’s response to the Afghanistan crisis, including supporting, under intense pressure, the biggest humanitarian airlift in the history of this country.

On 18 August, the Prime Minister announced a new and bespoke resettlement scheme to relocate 5,000 people at risk in its first year, rising to up to 20,000 over the long term—one of the most generous schemes in our history. Ultimately, the number of refugees that we resettle every year depends on a variety of factors, including local authorities’ capacity for supporting refugees, the extent to which the community sponsorship approach continues to thrive, and funding. We work closely with our partners to assess the capacity for resettlement and will continue to welcome those in need of protection in the years to come. Committing to an annual public target would remove the flexibility that this approach provides.

Additionally, we have announced plans for a pilot to support access to work visas for highly-skilled displaced people that will run in addition to existing safe and legal routes. Furthermore, the Government also provide a safe and legal route to bring families together through the family reunion policy, which allows a partner and children aged under 18 of those granted protection in the UK to join them here, if they formed part of the family unit before the sponsor fled their country, and can demonstrate a genuine and subsisting relationship.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Does the Minister agree that in many cases under the Dublin regulation, children were placed with quite distant relatives here in the UK who they had never met, when their families and parents were in the country from whence they had fled because it was they who had paid the people traffickers to get the children to the UK?

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

As I have said, it is very important that those established relationships exist. As we have debated on many occasions in the course of this Committee, we do not want anybody to place themselves in the hands of evil people smugglers and criminal gangs. We should all be very concerned about that particular issue, as I know colleagues on the Government Benches are.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

It is welcome for the Minister to reference the importance of family reunion visas, as they are clearly a vital safe route. He will be aware that more than 90% of visas are given to women and children. Will he, then, explain why in clause 10 the Government are taking away reunion rights from the majority of refugees?

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

On the issue of safe routes for children, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Europe with family members in the UK are able to apply to join eligible sponsors, such as those with refugee leave or British settled status. The immigration rules make provision for children to be reunited with their parents. Paragraphs 319 and 297 of the immigration rules are extremely flexible and allow for children to apply to join adult family members if requirements are met, and if there are serious or compelling reasons that make the exclusion of a child undesirable and suitable arrangements are needed for a child’s care. Again, these matters are considered on a case-by-case basis, taking proper account of all the circumstances at play.

Let me finish the point that I was making before I took the interventions. Under the family reunion policy, we have granted reunion to over 37,000 partners and children of those granted protection in the UK since 2015; that is more than 5,000 a year. Our policy makes it clear that there is discretion to grant visas outside the immigration rules that caters for extended family members in exceptional and compassionate circumstances—for example, young adult sons or daughters who are dependent on family here and who are living in dangerous situations. Refugees can also sponsor adult dependent relatives living overseas to join them, when, due to age, illness or disability, that person requires long-term personal care that can only be provided by relatives in the UK.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I suggest the Minister goes away and does some investigations into just how frequently these types of application are granted. My recollection is that some of the thresholds are so high—exceptional and compassionate circumstances, and so on—that in reality, it is almost impossible for some of these applications to be successful. I do not think it is an answer at all to what the hon. Member for Sheffield Central is advocating.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I hear the hon Member’s point, which again I will take away and reflect on with colleagues in the Department.

In the light of the Government’s track record and commitment to safe and legal routes, I hope that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central agrees that the new clause is unnecessary. In particular, I highlight that information on our safe and legal routes is readily available on gov.uk including, where relevant, details about eligibility and the referral or application process.

The Home Office is committed to publishing data on arrivals in an orderly and transparent way as part of the regular quarterly immigration statistics, in line with the code of practice for official statistics. We already publish statistics on the numbers arriving through safe and legal routes. A statutory requirement to publish targets would therefore be unnecessary and unhelpfully limit the flexibility of future Governments in responding to emerging situations.

For all those reasons, I invite the hon. Member not to move the new clause. Given what has been said on family reunion, it might be helpful if I write to the Committee with more information to address some of those points, having reflected on Hansard.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I would certainly welcome a letter on family reunion. However, I must disappoint the Minister, because he has failed to convince me about the balance in the Bill, which is central, on the Government’s commitment to develop safe and legal routes as an alternative to dangerous channel crossings. I must therefore press the new clause.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 69 Nationality and Borders Bill — New Clause 23 - Safe and legal routes

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.