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Immigration Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-15116, in the name of Christian Allard, on the impact on Scotland of the United Kingdom Immigration Bill. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I invite members and members of the public who are leaving to do so quickly and quietly, please. I call Monsieur Allard to open the debate.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament condemns the passage of the UK Government’s Immigration Bill in the House of Commons; considers that it will have an impact on devolved areas of responsibility; believes that, by further criminalising and marginalising undocumented workers, the Bill is in danger of driving people further into the hands of unscrupulous employers, risking deepening exploitation; considers with regret that the Bill could lead to increased homelessness and discrimination and will place onerous immigration duties on landlords and other private individuals, including in the North East Scotland region, through provisions on residential tenancies; condemns the powers to remove in-country rights of appeal against Home Office immigration decisions, which it believes will result in families being split up and employment ended simply due to Home Office errors or oversights; condemns the removal of financial support for families with children as a deliberate policy of destitution; opposes any extension or application of this legislation to Scotland without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, and notes calls for the UK Government to rethink what it sees as this injurious legislation and to repeal its provisions to protect human rights of all citizens.

Photo of Christian Allard Christian Allard Scottish National Party

Merci, Presiding Officer.

The motion has received cross-party support because we—in this chamber, in the public gallery and across Scotland—do not agree with the passage of the UK Government’s Immigration Bill. The reason is simple: this so-called reserved legislation will have a devastating impact on devolved areas of responsibility.

I quote from a cross-party document—the Smith commission report—which says:

“The parties ... have agreed that the Scottish and UK Governments should work together to ... explore ... the possibility of ... different powers being in place in Scotland for asylum seekers to access accommodation and financial support and advice.”

How far back does the Immigration Bill take us from the spirit and the letter of the Smith commission report? I will tell you, Presiding Officer—it takes us back to the 1950s.

The changes that relate to employment and extend immigration officers’ powers, along with the changes on housing and asylum decision appeals, reflect Westminster’s intention to further discriminate against people such as me—the people who choose to come to live here.

The implementation of the bill will truly bring back institutionalised racism. When I first drafted the motion, I thought that the bill was

“in danger of driving people further into the hands of unscrupulous employers, risking deepening exploitation”.

Let me amend that part of the motion. I know that the number of unscrupulous employers in the north-east and across Scotland will not increase, but what will increase is the number of employers who are reluctant to employ anyone who appears to be foreign, bringing institutionalised racism to the workplace.

The Law Society of Scotland’s briefing for the debate—I thank it for the information—states that clause 9, which is on the offence of employing an illegal worker,

“appears to empower immigration officers to arrest persons, without warrant, who are not subject to immigration control, and who may be British citizens, if they have reasonable grounds for suspecting they are committing the offence of employing illegal workers.”

I agree with the Law Society of Scotland and the Immigration Law Practitioners Association that

“employers will be reluctant to employ anyone who does not hold a British passport”.

I remind the chamber that a British passport can cost £72.50 to £85.50 and can take up to six weeks to be delivered. The bill will make employers reluctant to employ people without British passports

“whom they regard as not looking or sounding British, or having a British name.”

The new powers to allow immigration officers to search licensed premises without any need for suspicion that an immigration offence is being committed relate to licensing law, which is a devolved matter. This Parliament, this Scottish Government and the minister have to be clear: the UK Government must not be allowed to legislate on devolved matters without our consent.

While the Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee is conducting an inquiry into race, ethnicity and employment to see what measures can be taken to achieve positive outcomes in employment in 21st century Scotland, Westminster is attempting to take the whole of the UK back to the 1950s and the years of discrimination and institutionalised racism.

Like employers, landlords will be put in a very difficult position when they are asked to do the work of immigration officers. There can be only one consequence of landlords knowing that they can face fines of up to £3,000 if they fail to inspect tenants’ passports and other identity documents to establish that they are here legally: the bill will deter landlords from letting accommodation to anyone who appears to be foreign, bringing institutionalised racism to housing.

The Scottish Government’s Minister for Housing said that the legislation risks driving vulnerable migrants to rent from landlords who are happy to flout the law. I think that landlords in Scotland will just choose not to rent to anyone who looks or sounds foreign. I agree with Margaret Burgess, the minister, when she said that private individuals or businesses should not take on the role of the Home Office and the Border Agency.

I thank Shelter Scotland for its support and briefing. It said:

“We share the very serious concerns of the Scottish Refugee Council and others about the legislative approach the UK Government are taking with the Immigration Bill.”

It also said that it has

“particular concerns about the implications for Scotland’s law on both tenancy and homelessness.”

It added that it strongly believes, as others do, that the Scottish Parliament’s legislative consent should be sought, and that the Parliament should be accorded the time to scrutinise the aspects of the bill that relate to devolved powers. We need consultation, committee scrutiny and a full debate with a vote at the end—nothing less.

On asylum decision appeals, I am appalled—appalled, Presiding Officer—that, when the rest of Europe is responding to the biggest refugee crisis since world war two, the UK Government wants to remove in-country rights of appeal against Home Office immigration decisions. That will result in more families being split up, adding to the crisis instead of supporting the very desperate people who reach our shores.

Last October, Stuart McDonald MP, the shadow Scottish National Party spokesperson on immigration, asylum and border control, described the bill as

“regressive, illiberal, ill-considered and inhumane”.—[Official Report, House of Commons, 13 October 2015; vol 600, c 222.]

In its briefing, the Scottish Refugee Council said:

“Removal of this right to appeal is simply egregious not only in terms of its searing impact on those affected but also in terms of facilitating State-sanctioned destitution in rule of law terms as it extinguishes the right to effective remedies in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

I have a lot of words from the Scottish Refugee Council about the bill. I do not have time to use them all, but some more of them are that the bill is

“driven by ideology, based on supposition” and

“lacking any credible evidence base”.

Members can look at the briefing. The SRC is not alone—a lot of organisations are pushing very hard against the bill. It adds that the bill is

“Possibly unlawful in neglecting child welfare and the removal of appeal rights against destitution”.

The SRC of course agrees with all the other legal briefings that we received for the debate, which say that the bill breaches our devolved settlement.

Today, we have been asked to unite and to stop any extension or application of the bill to Scotland without the consent of this Parliament.

I am an immigrant, and I am proud to be one of the many new Scots contributing to modern Scotland. Institutionalised racism cannot come back to this country of ours.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I thank Christian Allard for securing the debate. I echo many of the sentiments that he expressed.

The Conservative Government’s Immigration Bill is both an important and an unhelpfully controversial measure. I am pretty sure that, like me, the vast majority of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament will have no hesitation in recording their opposition to the bill. I also pledge the opposition of my Labour colleagues at Westminster.

I could not put it better than the forceful and powerful statement of concern that was issued today by a number of organisations and individuals, including the Scottish Refugee Council, Shelter and Homeless Action Scotland. They describe provisions in the bill as

“self-defeating and deeply harmful” and as provisions that

“will facilitate great suffering on already vulnerable women, children, and men.”

The bill will be damaging to our communities, damaging to immigrants themselves, damaging to the way in which we support children and families and damaging to those of us who want to live in an inclusive, tolerant and compassionate country. Those are the substantive reasons why we should resist the bill, and we will resist it both here and at Westminster.

I want to focus on the impact that the bill will have on several areas of devolved responsibility, despite the worrying lack of clarity around scrutiny, accountability and governance.

At the heart of my concerns is the proposal to effectively outsource the enforcement of immigration policy by involving a series of private individuals, ranging from driving instructors and bank staff to landlords.

As members might imagine, I believe that most public services are best delivered by public servants, with the appropriate mechanisms in place for democratic accountability and scrutiny. In this case, the proposals on landlords in particular place a duty on private citizens and private businesses, as well as on local authority and housing association landlords, to inspect new tenants’ citizenship and immigration documents and conduct checks on existing residents.

As MSPs, many of us will have dealt with immigration cases, and we know that it is already a highly complicated and bureaucratically complex process. Going down such a path must present a huge risk to all those involved, not least the harm that could be done to people who are already in a highly vulnerable situation.

I believe that about 380 families living here would face an immediate challenge, but around 330,000 people living in private rented accommodation in Scotland could also be affected. The bill introduces a new right of eviction that is not assessed or overseen by our courts and the Scottish legal system, but whose authority stems directly from the Home Office.

It is not just the confidence-sapping fact that about 30 per cent of Home Office decisions are overturned on appeal that worries me; it is the introduction of new procedures to our private rented sector just as we debate how to make private tenure more stable and secure this very afternoon.

The regulations governing the procedures will be drawn up by the UK Government under what are often termed Henry VIlI powers—in other words, wide-ranging executive powers that are not subject to scrutiny by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, or by any other committee of this Parliament for that matter. Those powers could include the power to repeal related existing provisions in acts of the Scottish Parliament.

There is so much to worry about. The full impact of the bill needs to be examined in greater detail. We know that some migrants to this country are trafficked here and are used for forced labour or even sexual exploitation. The bill could give the traffickers more control over their victims by limiting their access to accommodation.

The bill amends the already horrendously complex support regime for refused asylum-seeking families and children, and it is forecast to leave many parents and children destitute. Leaving aside our feelings about that abhorrent proposal, the measure is incompatible with human rights duties and could therefore leave the legislation open to challenge in the Scottish and UK courts. In fact, there is every reason to expect landlords to respond to the bill by simply not taking on tenants from migrant populations. That would be hugely discriminatory against an already vulnerable group of people; of course, it, too, would leave the legislation open to challenge on the ground of its discriminatory impact.

I want the bill to be withdrawn or defeated. At the very least, the Scottish Parliament needs to ensure clarity and good governance. The bill is not the only legislation that is reserved to Westminster but which overlaps with responsibilities that are devolved to Holyrood. We need to establish sound procedures for scrutinising such measures and ensuring proper accountability. It may be that that scrutiny is being carried out at Westminster. If so, I would expect to hear the UK minister’s justification as to why there is no need for a legislative consent motion. At the very least, the Parliament should refer the bill to the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee for further investigation. I see that my colleague, Bruce Crawford, who convenes that committee, is in the chamber.

It would be very easy to simply rail against everything that comes from Westminster and pretend that everyone in Scotland is liberally minded. I do not kid myself that that is the case, but we have a duty to ensure that we carry out our duties and responsibilities as a legislature properly.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I am pleased to speak in the debate.

Members will not be surprised to hear that I simply do not recognise much of the characterisation of the UK Government’s Immigration Bill that Christian Allard set out in his motion and in his speech. I respect him, but I think that he is talking nonsense.

The UK Government was elected with an overall majority in last year’s general election on a very strong platform of reforming our immigration laws and putting right an immigration system that was left in chaos by the previous Government. It has a clear mandate for the legislation, which is part of its efforts to get a grip on the immigration system. Its approach has widespread public support across the UK, including in Scotland, and a great deal of support across the rest of Europe.

The Immigration Bill has three clear aims: to tackle illegal working and labour market abuses; to ensure that only migrants who are lawfully present in the UK can access services such as those that allow people to drive on our roads and use UK bank accounts; and to make it easier to remove illegal migrants from the UK. Surely all of us support those objectives.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

No, I will not. Christian Allard has had his go. I will make some progress.

I am confident that all of us agree that migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to labour market exploitation and may find themselves living and working in dangerous and degrading conditions. We need to accept that labour market exploitation is increasingly an organised criminal activity that fuels illegal immigration. Government regulators that enforce workers’ rights need reform and better co-ordination to tackle that problem. The creation of a new statutory director of labour market enforcement to provide a central intelligence hub and facilitate the allocation of resources across the different regulators is therefore surely welcome. It has already been welcomed by Labour’s shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham MP.

The bill makes it easier to bring prosecutions against employers where they knowingly employ illegal workers and to seize the earnings of illegal workers under proceeds of crime legislation. Powers will also be granted to immigration officers to close business premises for up to 48 hours, or even longer in certain cases where the employer has previously been given a civil penalty or has been prosecuted for employing illegal workers.

Immigration officers and the police will have a new power to search for and seize UK driving licences that are in the possession of people who are not lawfully in the UK. Banks and building societies will have to perform periodic checks and notify the Home Office when they identify a person who has been disqualified from holding a current account by reason of their immigration status.

On private rented accommodation, the bill creates four offences to target rogue landlords and agents who deliberately and repeatedly fail to comply with the right to rent scheme or fail to evict individuals whom they know or have reasonable cause to believe are disqualified from renting as a result of their immigration status.

I recognise that creating an immigration system that is fair, efficient and fit for purpose is a big challenge, not just for the UK but for every western democracy, as we face severe international disputes that are pushing up migrant numbers and deal with organised crime and international human-trafficking gangs.

The Immigration Bill is part of the UK Government’s work towards meeting that challenge, and its proportionate and practical measures have my support. I urge the Scottish Government to continue to engage fully with the UK Government on the subject. Many of the bill’s fundamental aims are, I believe, shared by both Governments and by people across Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I congratulate Christian Allard on securing this important and timely debate. I reiterate his comment that what is happening in the world is appalling. We are experiencing a refugee crisis of great magnitude. Men, women and children are fleeing violence, particularly in the middle east and in sub-Saharan and north Africa, and are risking their lives to escape war-torn countries. As we know very well from having seen the reports, they are dying in the process of trying to get out of those countries.

What happens? The Westminster Government’s answer was to introduce the Immigration Act 2014 and, now, a bill that will have a direct impact on Scotland’s laws and this Parliament’s powers. I differ on that from Jamie McGrigor and I will describe that difference shortly.

The Parliament’s powers are important to us, to Scotland and—on immigration—to refugees and asylum seekers who come to Scotland and are welcomed here. I thank the Scottish Refugee Council for its briefing for the debate, which says:

“Legislation in a refugee crisis should be there to protect not harm migrants and refugees.”

That says it all, but it is certainly not what the Westminster Government has put forward.

Jamie McGrigor said that the Westminster Government has a mandate; well, the Scottish Parliament has a mandate from the Scottish people. Legislation that we have passed will be wiped out by the Immigration Bill that is coming from Westminster, which does not have a mandate in this Parliament or in this country. In particular, the bill will have an impact on

“licensing, housing, tenancy law, evictions and ... the safeguarding of the wellbeing of children including those looked after.”

That is important to us, as I am sure it is to Jamie McGrigor. Westminster does not have a mandate to interfere in the legislative competence that we in the Scottish Parliament have.

I will raise an issue on which I have experience and which Christian Allard mentioned—the bill’s removal of the appeal to the First-tier Tribunal. The Refugee Council’s briefing says:

“destitution is near guaranteed by the Bill’s removal of the right to appeal to the First-tier (Asylum Support) Tribunal for those individuals and families (so children too) who have their support refused or discontinued as the Home Secretary deems there is no barrier to them returning home.”

How many times have I heard that when I have been along to appeals to help to represent people? The briefing says that the right to appeal is

“a vital safeguard against extremely high levels of incorrect Home Office decisions”— as I have found, and others have as well—

“on asylum support with almost 2/3 of appeals lodged at this Tribunal leading to support continuing or being reinstated.”

Appeals are lodged because half the time the proper information is not available to protect the asylum seekers. With the help of a good lawyer and the institutions and groups that we work with—I can speak only for Glasgow, but I am sure that this is true throughout Scotland—we can put in appeals.

Photo of Jean Urquhart Jean Urquhart Independent

I agree with all that the member is saying. It is important to recognise that not every case concerns an immigrant. Often, immigrants have married local people, and the bill puts us in danger of asking somebody to make up their mind about whether they will leave the country with their immigrant partner or break up a marriage and often a family.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

Jean Urquhart is absolutely right. We have had experience of that. In one case that we represented, the person involved discovered that one of their maternal grandparents was Irish. They and their partner-to-be went to Ireland and, because of the law there, they were allowed to marry and become Irish citizens.

I have been involved in many appeals and I thank all the organisations, individuals and lawyers—Fraser Latta in particular—who give a great deal of their time to work for asylum seekers. Many asylum seekers who won their cases on appeal now live and work in Scotland. They have small businesses and are a great asset to Scotland. If they had been sent back, that asset would have been lost. Some of them would probably have been dead by now if they had not won their appeal. I am really concerned about the proposal on the First-tier Tribunal.

On television last night—others might have seen this, too—I saw two young Syrian girls in Clydebank who were scooting along a corridor on scooters that neighbours had donated. I think that they said that Clydebank was paradise. I am not sure that I would go as far as that, but I could see the sheer happiness and relief on their faces that they were safe and that no more bombs were dropping on them. Surely that is what we want in Scotland and not this terrible bill.

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I thank Christian Allard for securing this important debate, and I also thank those who have spoken for their thoughtful, forceful and robust speeches. Before I get into the substance of the Immigration Bill and the ways in which it touches on areas that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, I will consider the bill as a whole and reiterate some points that my colleagues have made.

There has been, on the part of successive UK Governments and the current UK Government in particular, an undue focus on irregular migration. The increased criminalisation of migrants completely ignores the contributions that they make to our economy, our demography, our society, our communities and our culture.

The UK Government seems to be obsessed with immigrants—everything is the fault of immigration. Sometimes, immigrants can be too easy a lightning rod for accusations about the faults in our society. There are economic faults because we have not been careful enough with the economy, but we hear, “Let’s blame the immigrants.” We have not brought forward the correct housing legislation, but we hear, “Let’s blame the immigrants.” Whatever the problems—be they with education, the health service or anything else—people say, “Let’s blame the immigrants.”

That is the completely incorrect approach to take. It ignores the important point that immigrants have made an incredible contribution to this country. A report by University College London showed that, between 2001 and 2011, European Union migrants alone contributed £21 billion to the economy. It also showed that non-EU migrants have made a considerable contribution to this country over the years and decades.

The Scottish Government supports a system of sensible, managed migration that meets the needs of Scotland’s economy and society. Alongside our efforts to create more jobs and develop the skills of our workforce, we must be able to attract and retain world-class talent to fill the vacancies that cannot be filled by resident workers.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I appreciate Sandra White’s point about the two girls who were on television last night, and I was also delighted to hear them call Clydebank “paradise”. I agree that, compared with where they have come from, it certainly is paradise. However, Kofi Annan was on the same programme and praised the UK Government for taking refugees straight from the camps surrounding Syria and flying them to this country to try to prevent them from crossing to Europe via the dangerous Mediterranean, where 30,000 refugees have drowned over the past 15 years. Does the minister agree that that is a good thing?

Photo of Hanzala Malik Hanzala Malik Labour

I thank Christian Allard for bringing the matter to the chamber. The UK Government’s Immigration Bill is problematic on many levels. The right to rent scheme requires landlords to check immigration status documents. In addition, the bill gives landlords powers to evict a tenant whose right to rent has expired without the need for a court order. If that was extended to Scotland, that would undermine Scottish tenancy laws.

The bill’s implications for Scotland are unclear and the Scottish Government needs to get clarity. Landlords are not immigration officers. Under the bill, the Conservative Government wants to turn landlords and letting agents into administrators. That role should be carried out by the Home Office but, because of a massive reduction in staff numbers, the UK Government wants to shift the responsibility to someone else.

Landlords could face a prison sentence if they get this wrong, but they are not experts in immigration and should not be expected to have such responsibilities and be answerable to the Government. Even if the Government passes the buck on checking people’s immigration documents, it will still need staff to enforce the new laws. Without enforcement, passing laws is pretty pointless. Bad legislation and poor enforcement can do more harm than good.

I have for a long time been asking for a sensible discussion about immigration. A lot of noise has been made about the fresh talent initiative and post-study work visas, with calls for the visas to be reintroduced to support Scotland’s universities in attracting students from overseas. As I have said in the chamber before, the immigration system is not meant to help only one sector of the economy or one part of the country. We need an immigration system that helps us to manage skills shortages.

I am in favour of a points-based system—similar to that in Canada—in which separate regions can set their own priorities. Although we are part of the UK and its Government has the right to legislate for the country as a whole, powers have been given to this Parliament and the Scottish Government. The UK Government needs to respect that.

The UK Government needs to understand that there are local needs, which relate to the post-study work visas that I mentioned. We desperately need support and help in that area, but the British Government has consistently denied us that opportunity. Perhaps that is because it feels that action must be taken on a UK-wide basis. Action needs to be taken, and I believe that we have support across the chamber for that type of thinking.

The bill needs to be defeated in the UK Parliament but, more important, we need to see how it would impact on Scottish legislation. I am sure that the Scottish legal system will advise the Scottish Government on how best to tackle the issue.

No law is a good law if it hurts the country’s economy and infringes people’s rights. We cannot expect untrained people to do a professional’s job. We cannot expect households, managers, agents, carry-out owners and restaurateurs to do immigration officers’ jobs. That is extremely unreasonable and it is hurting a lot of people throughout the country.

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I have never disagreed with the UK Government taking any number of refugees. It had to be forced—grudgingly—into doing so by pressure from the public and stakeholders, but I welcome the decision nevertheless. However, it is foolish to say that we can take refugees only from the camps neighbouring Syria and turn a blind eye to those who cross the Aegean, many of whom drown or lose family members when they do so. We cannot ignore the fact that refugees are coming to Europe and just leave Europe to deal with them. We have a moral obligation to help them, but I think that we disagree on that point.

I return to the Immigration Bill. We believe that many of the proposals in the bill touch on devolved responsibilities, and the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, Alex Neil, has written to the UK Government four times to seek clarification and put on record our concerns about the bill.

Ken Macintosh spoke powerfully about the housing issue, as did other members, and it would be of great concern to us if private landlords—citizens who own property—were used, in effect, to plug the gaps in Government departments by doing the job that Home Office officials should be doing. That would have an impact not only on migrants, the vast majority of whom are here legally, but on UK citizens. I have heard Labour MPs and third sector organisations speak powerfully about the fact that even those who have what might be considered foreign-sounding names might be discriminated against by landlords who do not want the hassle, although those people might be UK citizens.

The Scottish Government will continue to voice its concerns forcefully. We believe that anything that the UK Government does in the Immigration Bill should involve consultation with not only the Scottish Government, important though that is, but Scottish stakeholders across the board.

My colleagues across the chamber have spoken about asylum. Jamie McGrigor said that everybody wants an immigration and asylum system that is fair, and I agree. However, the current asylum system is not fair. Dawn raids are not fair; detention of not only adults but children down south is not fair; giving asylum seekers a plastic card with £35 a week on it, which dehumanises them, is not fair; and not allowing asylum seekers to work is not fair. I do not think that the system that we have is fair and, if anything, the Immigration Bill will make it more unfair for asylum seekers and those who are looking to make a life here in Scotland or in the United Kingdom.

I do not think that the bill’s purpose is to improve the lives of immigrants and I agree with Sandra White and other members that the bill will make destitution more likely. Last week, along with Kezia Dugdale, I attended the Scottish Refugee Council’s annual general meeting, and many of the third sector organisations that were represented there spoke to me about what the Scottish Government could do to help those who will be made destitute because of the bill. I gave an open commitment to meet those organisations to discuss that.

It is clear to me—it has been confirmed by members’ speeches—that the Immigration Bill will not meet the needs of Scotland and will do nothing to protect vulnerable individuals. In fact, the bill will create a more hostile environment for the vulnerable, those who are without legal status and the many British citizens who will be subject to the bill’s wide-ranging powers.

We will continue to make the case to the UK Government that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament must be consulted on the many areas of devolved responsibility on which the bill touches. I thank members for their insightful speeches and assure them that the Scottish Government will continue to oppose the damaging measures in the bill.

13:08 Meeting suspended.

14:30 On resuming—