Amnesty for Undocumented Migrants — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 5:51 pm on 19th July 2021.

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[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution) 6:15 pm, 19th July 2021

Hon. Members should be aware that social distancing is no longer in operation, but I remind you that Mr Speaker has encouraged us to wear masks. I also remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of Westminster Hall debates, and Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. Members participating virtually should leave their cameras on for the duration of the debate and must be visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall clerks at westminsterhallclerks@ parliament.uk. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 567681, relating to an amnesty for undocumented migrants.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. The petition calls on the Government to

“grant an urgent Amnesty to Undocumented Migrants living in the UK.”

It attracted 103,440 signatures, and I thank each and every one of those people for participating in our democracy by signing the petition, which has led us to debate this very important issue.

It is clear that covid-19 has added a bit of impetus to the decision to sign the petition. There has been concern about the ability of undocumented migrants to get access to a vaccine, which is of benefit both to them and to the wider society, because we know that people are less likely to transmit the virus when they have had the vaccine. That seems to have given the petition a bit of added impetus, because having an unstable existence is made even more challenging through covid-19. As for many things, covid-19 has made a challenging situation more challenging, so I can understand the decision of 103,440 people to sign the petition.

In terms of what the petition calls for, it is as simple as granting an amnesty to all undocumented migrants living in the UK, except those who have a criminal record. The petition was quite clear that if someone has a criminal record, they should not be the beneficiary of the proposed amnesty, but I have to say that there is not much more detail than that. I assume that the petitioners want to treat every undocumented migrant the same, regardless of whether they are someone who has been living here for over 10 years and who has put down extensive family roots, or somebody who, quite frankly, arrived here last weekend on a dinghy from Calais. That is something that the petition is missing, because there is no clarity. I can only assume that the petition is essentially referring to every single undocumented migrant. I also assume that it would be a one-off amnesty for all undocumented migrants, but I am unsure about whether the petitioners wish it to be something that happens routinely—for example, every five or 10 years. That is also not clear. What is clear is the desire to regularise the status of all undocumented migrants, which is what we will be debating today.

The arguments in favour of the petition are clear. There are many individuals and families who have come here as undocumented migrants. Some may have come illegally in the first instance. Some may have come here legally, but the legal time that they are allowed to be here has expired and they are looking to regularise their position. It is a combination of both of those. However, there are many who are making a positive contribution to our country in difficult circumstances. At the moment, it is a very challenging situation for them.

There is also an argument that, by regularising their status, it actually leads to their paying more taxes, which is beneficial to the taxpayer. I have some sympathy with the argument that says we should treat people a bit differently if they have been here for 10 or 12 years and have put down extensive family roots. Is it really realistic, or likely, that the Government will deport migrants at that stage? It is incredibly unlikely. If we are of the view that it is incredibly unlikely that we are ever going to deport migrants in those circumstances, there does seem to be a strong argument that we should regularise their status, and perhaps an argument could be made for an amnesty. However, in terms of the arguments against, and in relation to the petition, I simply cannot support treating a family who may have been here for more than 10 years the same as somebody who came here last weekend in a dinghy.

We also cannot make assumptions about every single person who is in the undocumented migrant category. The reality is that there will be some people who have come into this country through an illegal route. We do not know whether they are genuine refugees; it is impossible to know whether all of them will be. Among them there will be some economic migrants, so ultimately those individuals would likely be the beneficiaries of the blanket move as suggested by the petition. That is something that I cannot support.

If we were to support a blanket amnesty for every single undocumented migrant, it would be impossible to sustain that position while at the same time not being in favour of open borders. I find it very difficult to understand how you could support an amnesty—and potentially have one regularly, every five or six years—and not support open borders. As a Member of Parliament of this country, I would never support open borders. It would put unsustainable amounts of pressure on our public services. There would be all sorts of problems with social integration if migration was unmanaged to that extent. It would also limit our country’s ability to show compassion towards the most genuine refugees and to have a laws-based, rules-based immigration system that allows us to welcome the brightest and the best who want to come to this country to make a positive contribution. More to the point, it would be a slap in the face for all of those people who have moved to this country legally and who have followed the—often cumbersome—rules. They have followed them. They have done their side of the bargain. They have moved here legally. This would be a slap in the face to them.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Does the hon. Member know that a lot of the people that we are talking about, undocumented migrants, have come here legally? They are undocumented not through any fault of their own. Does he accept that?

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

With the greatest respect to the hon. Member, I did make the point that the proposal would apply both to those who may have entered the country illegally and to those who may have entered legally but for a fixed period of time that has expired. Yes, it is a mixture. That is why I am against a blanket amnesty. It would be a significant movement away from the case-by-case approach that the Government are currently taking, which takes into account the differences between cases and the nuances of different circumstances. An amnesty would not do that.

Yes, some of the individuals who would benefit from an amnesty would be those who came here legally but whose time has expired, who are struggling with the process, who have been here for 10 years and who are making a positive contribution. However, it would also include those people who have shunned the laws of our country, who have deliberately come here illegally and who, frankly, have no more right to be here than the families or individuals who are patiently waiting to come here legally. That is the reality of the situation.

We are also talking at a time when the Government are dealing with the significant challenge of the illegal crossings from Calais—

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

No, I am not going to take another intervention. That is a situation in which individuals, regardless of their circumstances, are knowingly deciding not to engage with the legal process for claiming asylum or to immigrate here in a legal way, but to shun that legal approach and come here in an illegal manner. The danger of a blanket amnesty is that it would send out a message to all of those people who come over illegally and fuel an evil trade in human lives. It would potentially make the situation a lot worse. The money fuelling this evil trade in human lives would increase and potentially more lives would be put at risk, because if we adopted a position such as the one set out in the petition, which is very close to an open borders immigration policy, essentially the message would be: “Once you’re in, you’re in. So get over here, ignore the processes, because it’s worth the risk”. The risk is very real; it could lead to the loss of lives.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Would the hon. Member be surprised to hear then that his own Prime Minister has toyed with the idea of exactly what is being called for in this petition—an amnesty for anybody who has been here for a certain period of time? The Prime Minister has also talked about it recently.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

With the greatest of respect, if the hon. Member has read the motion in the petition, she will see that that is not what this petition is calling for. It mentions nothing about being here for 10 years. Essentially, it is a blanket amnesty for every single undocumented migrant. People across the political spectrum have floated and supported the idea of a limited amnesty targeted at those who have been here, say, for over 10 years. As I said earlier in my speech, I believe there are some merits in those arguments.

However, this petition is not calling for such an amnesty; it is calling for a situation that sits very closely to an open border policy, in my view. I think it would lead to chaotic results, unintended consequences, unsustainable pressure on public services, problems with social integration and, as I also said earlier, it would limit our capacity to promote a compassionate, generous, rules-based immigration system and approach to refugee resettlement, which could benefit this country and which, I believe, is supported by the majority of people in this country.

That is sort of the wider picture. Of course there will be examples of where the status quo fails individuals and individual families, and we need to work with that system to improve its efficiency and how quickly it deals with these cases, so that it can turn them around as quickly as possible and get people the outcome they need as soon as possible, so that they can plan their lives with certainty. Of course, that is something that I support.

However, the current Government position is that if someone has been in the country for a long period of time, there are opportunities to regularise their status. Nevertheless, I think it is appropriate and fair that that is done on a case-by-case basis, because we cannot make huge generalisations with regard to those who come under the category that we are talking about today, because the motors vary and the circumstances vary enormously.

In conclusion, although I sympathise with the reasons why people have signed this petition and their concern about the circumstances that many people face at the moment, the petition is not focused enough in what it is calling for. To me, it is calling for a blanket amnesty for every single person, many of whom have come here illegally and shunned the legal process. It would be a slap in the face for those who have come here legally, and there would be serious unintended consequences.

If the hon. Members taking part in this debate believe in this petition as it stands, they should run with that policy in a manifesto in a general election. There would be a resounding answer from the British people, namely that they would not support this proposal. The vast majority of people in this country see the benefits of immigration and are compassionate towards refugees, but they want a rules-based system and this petition would fly in the face of that.

For all those reasons, I would be unable to support this petition, but I am glad that this subject will have a good airing today. Having looked at the call list, I predict that perhaps we will hear some arguments being raised that are different to those I have raised. There probably will not be much reiteration of the arguments I have just made, until perhaps the end of the debate.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

I will put on an informal time limit of five minutes at the moment and we will see where we get to with that.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall 6:28 pm, 19th July 2021

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.

Undocumented migrants are not some enemy of the state; they are not a risk to this country. The vast majority of them are desperate people who are keen to work and secure a future for themselves and their families. It is with that in mind that they must be given the legal right to live and work in the UK, which will give them the chance to prosper in this country and stand on their own feet, rather than being treated like criminals.

It is obvious that the majority of undocumented migrants are in some form of work, albeit illegal and, in all likelihood, exploitative. I strongly believe that such migrants will have undoubtedly honed their skills and developed their knowledge and experience since they first moved here, and that they are all desperate to contribute to this country. At a time when UK employers are suffering from the most profound labour shortage in a generation, we should turn to a hard-working, talented and resilient resource that already exists here in the UK—undocumented migrants.

Far from the picture painted of them by some Members, a recent Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants survey estimates that 82% entered through legal routes and later fell out of status. According to the research, a migrant on the 10-year route to settlement will have paid £13,000 in application fees by the time they are granted indefinite leave to remain. The sheer cost and complexity of this broken system forces those who are here legally to then become undocumented. Once they fall out of status, it is extremely difficult and unlikely that they will receive it a second time.

This bewildering system limits the life chances of our most vulnerable and puts them at risk of rank exploitation from rogue employers and those who seek to prey on the defenceless. Under the Government’s hostile environment, their situation has become even more precarious.

I was shocked and disturbed by the report of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism last week, which showed that most GP surgeries in the UK refused to register undocumented migrants in spite of NHS policy. Not only is that position cruel and denies them the help that they desperately need, but it holds back our aim of vaccinating every adult in the UK and of beating this hideous disease. That policy puts us all at greater risk. I wrote to the Home and Health Secretaries on that point, which they ultimately agreed with, so pressure must now be put on the GP practices.

Amid the despair, there is still great hope among migrants. During the recent annual refugee week at the end of June, I took part in a Working West London employment event hosted by East London Advanced Technology Training, which offers training and skills development courses for refugees and migrants. I met a group who were crying out to contribute to this country, and I could see the rich array of skills, talents and passion that they have to offer.

Migrants play an important role in our society and are a statement of who we are. Not only are they people with aspirations and hopes, but they represent our values and demonstrate our humanity and decency. To the majority here in the debate today and the 100,000 people who signed the e-petition, it is clear that the Government must urgently reform our immigration system to prevent people from falling out of status, and must simplify the routes to regularisation. A commitment to an amnesty by the Government could only ever be the beginning of this, which should be swiftly followed by a fundamental reform of our immigration system and by ditching the hostile environment.

That change is not just the right thing to do. It will benefit this country and everyone living here. The Government must show some flexibility, pragmatism and humanity—principles that have long been at the heart of British policy making—and give undocumented migrants the chance to truly succeed in and contribute to our society.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham 6:34 pm, 19th July 2021

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. My speech will be quite short.

Most migrants to the UK have taken the trouble to apply properly through our immigration system. Here in Gravesend we live with highly successful immigration— notably, the Sikh community. But a blanket amnesty is not sensible if it applies to every undocumented migrant. Potentially, this proposal would allow tens of thousands of people—more perhaps—who are in the UK illegally to regularise their status. I entirely sympathise with their desire to build a better life, and I might do exactly the same thing myself if I were in their circumstances, but an amnesty like this would do nothing to reduce illegal immigration, which is what we are trying to do, and it would act as an additional pull factor to those wishing to come to the UK.

As my hon. Friend Tom Hunt points out, an amnesty like this is akin to having open borders. It means our immigration system would no longer be rules based. He raises the interesting point that if the Labour party put this in an election manifesto, it might not be a vote winner.

Finally, I entirely support any effort to attract undocumented people to vaccination centres without fear.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow 6:36 pm, 19th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank Tom Hunt for opening the debate and laying out the strongly-held opinions on both sides of this debate.

It is important for us to have a sensitive and nuanced debate on this important issue, because there are hundreds of thousands of undocumented people in our country. If we do not engage with or discuss this subject, we create bigger problems for our society. I want to focus on those who face severe exploitation because they have found themselves as undocumented migrants in our country.

I have no truck, as I am sure most in our country do not, with those who are deliberately and wilfully flouting our legal system and breaking the law in this country. However, I am interested in what we can do to protect and support those who arrived in this country, often through legitimate means, according to the JCWI, and found themselves becoming irregularised.

In many of our constituencies, there are countless examples of people facing violence or being trafficked, and of women facing domestic abuse. They sometimes arrived on spousal visas and then faced huge amounts of exploitation. Although people who face domestic violence can apply to stay in the UK even if their spouse does not sponsor them, they often do not pass many of the requirements, because if they do not have police reports and so on, it is difficult to prove to immigration officers that they have faced domestic abuse and violence.

This is a complex area for those who face exploitation and who are vulnerable. I have met many individuals who have faced those sorts of issues and, although we may have different views about the text of the petition, it is important to build a consensus around those who are particularly vulnerable and who should be given an amnesty.

Since the pandemic began last year, the issue of what we do with undocumented migrants, what healthcare provision they get and whether they have access to covid vaccines affects all of us. That is why it is a no-brainer to look at some of these issues carefully and to think about how they benefit us as a society, in terms of healthcare and protection for all of us. We have already heard about some of the issues around vaccination programmes and people being fearful about going to get vaccinated. Many GPs require people to register with them in order to access vaccines. There are one-off vaccination offers to undocumented migrants, but that is not comprehensive. On the public health benefits for the whole of society, to combat the pandemic we need to ensure that the estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million people who, according to the JCWI, are undocumented in our country, are given protection.

What should we do going forward? As Anne McLaughlin said, as recently as earlier this year the Prime Minister said that when people have been here for a very long time and have not fallen foul of the law, it makes sense to try to regularise their status. When he was Mayor of London, he talked about an “earned amnesty” for some 400,000 people who live in the capital. It is important that we look at how to address this issue in a sensible way that does not lead to a pull factor, which many have raised concerns about.

We want a managed migration process with legitimate routes for people to come here to make a contribution, whether to study, to work or to join family members, while recognising that some people came to this country over the past decade and beyond and, for different reasons, have found themselves in the irregular status category but did not break the law. Those are the people I am particularly concerned about—those who then fell foul of the system. I hope that we will look at how to protect people who have been exploited and trafficked and who have faced huge challenges in our country, and at opportunities for them to make a contribution to our economy, given that they have been here for a long time.

Although I do not agree with the exact wording of the petition, it is important that we look at how to protect those who have huge vulnerabilities and ensure that, in the middle of a pandemic, those who are not documented have access to vaccination programmes, testing and treatment for covid.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:42 pm, 19th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie.

My constituency of Feltham and Heston had the fourth highest number of signatories to this e-petition, reflecting—[Inaudible.]

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

Order. Can you speak up a little? I think there is something wrong with your microphone. We cannot hear you well at all.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

Order. I am sorry, we simply cannot hear you. Try again, and if it does not work, we will come back to you.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My constituency of Feltham and Heston had the fourth highest number of signatories to this e-petition, reflecting in my view—[Inaudible.]

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

Order. Again, I am sorry, but the sound is not working. We will have one of the engineers get in touch and we will come back to you. I call Ruth Cadbury.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities & Local Government) (Planning) 6:43 pm, 19th July 2021

Thank you, Mr Hosie. I think this is the first time I have served with you in the Chair—it is a great pleasure to do so.

The e-petition on undocumented migrants has been signed by over 900 of my constituents. It notes that:

“Undocumented Migrants are suffering in silence, with no access to adequate Financial support, or any help.”

I know from my casework and from listening to hon. Members’ speeches so far that, sadly, that assessment is far too accurate. Not only are they suffering in silence; their suffering is made worse by the careless, heartless and reckless Home Office, which continues to inflict a hostile environment on so many. They face long delays, irrational and inconsistent decisions, and inadequate legal support, especially for those with low or no income. Many of the people affected are victims of modern slavery. They are adults who came over as small children, or children joining the only family members they know are alive in this world.

The petition says that these people want to be able to

“live their lives as normal human beings and pay tax to help the UK economy”, and we know that migrants who have legal status and are taxpayers are more likely to be net contributors to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs than the average person in our population. I am not saying that I agree with all the wording of the petition, but it is really important that it is debated today.

As the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants makes clear in its recent survey, 82% of people in the UK who are undocumented arrived through a legal route, so I will start by addressing the extortionate and unfair immigration fees that impact not only those who are undocumented, but all those who have to navigate our immigration system here in the UK. People accept the concept of paying a fee to cover the cost of the service, but it is simply unfair for the Home Office to charge excessive fees that go well beyond the cost of providing the service. The fees are disproportionate compared with those of other countries: the average cost of a regularisation application in France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany is less than a tenth of its cost in the UK, and the cost of applying for permanent settlement in the UK is 20 times more than the average cost in those countries.

The Government keep increasing those fees. In 2014, the cost of a limited leave to remain application was £601; it has now risen to over £1,000 per person. For many applicants, that cost is multiplied by the number of people in their family. I know from listening to people locally that the costs are having a huge impact, and the JCWI rightly cites the high cost of fees as a major reason why people remain undocumented. These fees leave families in limbo, with the JCWI noting:

“Families who are unable to raise thousands of pounds every few years are at risk of losing their status and becoming undocumented, or forced to choose which family members maintain their status while others cannot.”

However, this debate is not just about fees, but about a wider system that is set up to create a hostile environment for undocumented migrants. We hear a lot of warm words from the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and junior Ministers about the Home Office’s change since the appalling Windrush scandal, but the hostile environment that the Windrush generation faced is still impacting so many people here in the UK, and the net number of people it ensnares only seems to be expanding.

Just this morning, we read in The Guardian of a Spanish woman who was less than a year old when she arrived in the UK. She has been sacked from her job in a care home because she is unable to prove she has a right to work in the UK. She applied for settled status before the deadline for EU citizens closed, but she is still waiting, and her employer has said that it was forced into this action because of the fines it faced. Of course, she will not be eligible to claim benefits until this is sorted out. This is yet another example of the awful hostile environment—a hostile environment that I fear is now going to impact on the millions of EU citizens living in the UK, including many in my own constituency.

I will finish by focusing on the real impact that these decisions and actions by the Home Office have. It is easy for us to become focused on numbers, but every number is a story of a family pushed into hardship, unable to pay bills or to cover the cost of food, and left in limbo. Many of these migrants have children who are UK citizens. We know that undocumented migrants experience domestic violence at three times the average national rate, yet the Government recently rejected an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill that would have sought to provide support to migrant women suffering from abuse. Once again, the Government’s rhetoric does not match the reality. This Government cannot claim to be compassionate or just until they end the hostile environment faced by my constituents and many others around the country.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport) 6:48 pm, 19th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I congratulate the well over 100,000 people who signed the petition to secure this important debate. Indeed, many of my constituents have contacted me to raise their concerns, and more than 2,100 of them have signed this official petition.

In essence, those people are saying that they reject the Home Office’s hostile environment, and that what we need is a fair, transparent system that provides a safe harbour for those fleeing war, genocide, domestic abuse, violence and other forms of persecution—a system that has at its heart our true British values of compassion, justice and humanitarianism. They highlight that the UK system of asylum and immigration is mired in crisis. Although I am not advocating a policy of open borders, we do need a fair, rules-based asylum and immigration policy.

A recent report makes for grim reading. The Joint Committee for the Welfare of Immigrants published a report called “We Are Here” just a few weeks ago. I am sure the Minister has read it. The report looks at the routes by which people become undocumented. Often a small error, a period of illness, bad advice or mental problems can lead to someone becoming undocumented and entering a Kafkaesque nightmare of impossible bureaucracy, social exclusion and exposure to the criminal underworld. These are people who are bewildered, disoriented and traumatised and who often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the system makes things worse for them.

We know that people without access to benefits and work are coerced into criminal activity or forced into dangerous work, but the pandemic has highlighted that, shamefully, undocumented migrants are also denied access to basic healthcare. The JCWI reports that they are scarred by the whole experience and are scared of seeing a GP, going to hospital or getting a covid vaccination, for sheer fear of arrest. I do not need to tell the Minister that this creates a danger to public health for everyone. There is obviously a huge unmet need for vaccinations. Is it not clear that the only people who the current system helps are criminals? We are fuelling exploitation and rewarding organised crime groups and people traffickers.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has set out a series of entirely sensible policies: namely, new and simplified routes to status based on five years’ residence; British citizenship for children born in the UK; making visa renewals automatic and affordable; and scrapping the illegal working offence and creating a route to status through work.

What have the Prime Minister and his Conservative Government proposed instead? It is hypocrisy, back-tracking and hostility. The Prime Minister himself advocated the creation of a migrants’ amnesty when he was the London Mayor in 2008. In 2016, as Foreign Secretary, he called measures to give amnesty to undocumented migrants who had lived in the UK for longer than 10 years “economically rational”, but after raising so many people’s hopes, and when he has the opportunity as Prime Minister to make a real difference and ensure that it is easier and simpler for those who are undocumented to become regularised, he has done nothing for the last two years. It is just not fair for those who could make a huge positive contribution through taxes to our Exchequer, and who have to suffer excessive Home Office fees, as hon. Members have already highlighted, to have their hopes falsely raised and then cruelly dashed.

I hope the Minister will have the confidence to deviate from the notes prepared by Home Office officials and to engage with those points with the seriousness that they merit. He can end the uncertainty, which has devastating consequences for the lives it affects. Undocumented migrants who have been here for several years deserve clarity.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:54 pm, 19th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie.

My constituency of Feltham and Heston had the fourth highest number of signatories to the petition, reflecting the humanity of our local community and our rich history of immigration and diversity. With over 150 languages spoken in Hounslow alone, our diversity is also our strength. Neighbours, colleagues, business owners and key workers come from all over the world and contribute to our local economy.

This important debate is focused specifically on action to support undocumented migrants. I support the call from my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali for consensus on how we move forward. Caritas Europa defines the challenge well, saying that while the fight against irregular migration has dominated the political agenda for years, undocumented migrants remain a sizeable population in Europe. The lack of regular resident status often goes hand in hand with a huge amount of suffering and vulnerability. Referred to as undocumented migrants or people without papers, these people may find themselves in a protracted limbo situation, living on the margin of society under continuous stress and anxiety, their basic rights often disregarded. As has been said, hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants are being blocked from booking covid vaccinations, despite Ministers saying that everyone should have access to vaccines regardless of immigration status. As a result, we are all less safe.

This issue is not without complexity, but we cannot be without humanity and compassion. The current system locks people out of vital services—often families with children. Research conducted by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants shows that 82% of respondents to its surveys entered the UK through legal routes and later fell out of status. Expensive and stressful reapplication processes, which can cost more than £12,000 by the time genuine cases are granted indefinite leave to remain, push families into enormous debt that lasts for years. These extortionate fees are not a deterrent. Instead, they push people into exploitative work. These are people who are ambitious to do well for themselves, their families and their adopted country.

That was the case with Navin—not his real name—whom the JCWI noted became undocumented after he was wrongly advised by a lawyer that his leave was still valid. He intended to rectify this when right-to-work checks meant that he lost his steady job in a restaurant. He could not afford to pay the fees required to regularise the status of his entire family, leaving them all undocumented. He took on cash-in-hand work at a car wash. He was regularly underpaid or simply not paid at all, and feared that social services would take his children away if they found out about his situation. He said:

“My kids were born here, and I don’t know where else I would go. I’ve got nothing back in Mauritius at all, no family, no one I know. I left when I was young, a long time ago. Here I have my life, my family.”

In so many cases, falling out of status is due to situations outside the control of the migrant. JCWI’s research found that this can happen for a variety of reasons too, including relationship breakdown, domestic violence, poor legal advice, inability to pay those extremely high fees, or a simple mistake. However, once the migrant falls out of status, it can be difficult to obtain it again. The impact of falling out of status results in people being trapped in limbo. As in these stories, the vast majority of undocumented migrants have been settled in the UK for more than five years, or indeed 10, and arrived legally. The UK has the second largest number of undocumented migrants in Europe behind Germany. The insecurity and, often, destitution of these families has worsened through the pandemic, with many also dependent on food banks.

This intractable problem needs a different approach, which is why I believe it is time that the Government reformed the current system to create a simplified route to regularisation, so that migrants can access services, rent a home, work and pay taxes, and live a life free from fear. Addressing the damagingly high application fees alongside simplifying the process is an approach that has been taken in Ireland. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, there are also precedents for an amnesty policy intervention. It is interesting that Greece, Italy and Portugal all implemented amnesty programmes in recent months. There is also clear economic evidence that if undocumented migrants can move out of informal employment and into more secure jobs, there are many benefits for wider society. According to The Economist, studies in America suggests that citizenship for its 11 million undocumented immigrants could boost the economy, with GDP rising up to $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

In conclusion, undocumented migrants clearly need a different way so that they and their families can move forward. The JCWI powerfully remarks that

“once someone becomes undocumented, the criminalisation of their everyday lives drives them into exploitation. Their voices are silenced, and they are unable to…tell anyone about their plight. Under the Hostile Environment, almost everyone who should keep them safe…is part of the system of immigration enforcement and surveillance trying to rip them away from their families” and their homes. We need a sensitive, long-term solution to the undocumented migrants crisis. As a first step, we should simplify the process to make it easier for those who are undocumented to become regularised, and reform the extremely high fees, which mean that people cannot pay for visa applications. Surely, in the interests of our economy and effective administration, which covid now demands, and in the interests of humanity, there needs to be a much better answer to the issue of undocumented migrants.

Photo of Claudia Webbe Claudia Webbe Independent, Leicester East 7:00 pm, 19th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Tom Hunt on securing this important debate, although I disagree wholeheartedly with what he had to say.

I congratulate the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition calling for this debate, including the more than 1,200 Leicester East residents. Although I wholeheartedly support the petition’s call for the urgent regularisation of undocumented migrants, with a safe pathway to citizenship after five years, I suggest politely that its use of the word “amnesty” is not quite accurate because it implies wrongdoing. The reality is that in nearly all cases undocumented people are not criminals but have simply fallen through the cracks of the Government’s callous hostile environment policies.

Last year I tabled an early-day motion calling on the Government to take immediate action to ensure that leave to remain is granted to undocumented migrants, irrespective of their nationality or immigration status, so that they can access healthcare, food and housing. The issue came to a head when it became clear that undocumented migrants would be left out of the vaccination programme. It was clear to many that we were only ever going to be as safe as the most vulnerable among us. Earlier this year, I pushed again, including with another early-day motion calling for undocumented migrants to be granted leave to remain so that no one is excluded from that necessary protection. Such exclusionary practices are not only morally abhorrent; they also undermine the whole purpose of a vaccine. While people and institutions discriminate, the virus does not. The only way for the vaccine to be effective is by ensuring that everyone is protected from the virus.

Most migrants enter the UK through legal routes. As we have heard, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants estimates the figure to be 82%. Every two and a half years, a migrant must pay thousands to stay. A migrant on the 10-year route will have paid £12,937 in fees alone. They will have been denied legal aid to seek legal advice about, or appeal the refusal of, their applications. If at any point they are unable to submit the right application at the right time and with the required fee, they will become undocumented. This is deeply unjust.

There are an estimated 1 million undocumented workers who lack any entitlement to support from the state and who are, therefore, entirely without funds to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families. For a demographic who already face uncommonly difficult challenges in their daily lives, the pandemic has only deepened fears over how to maintain an income, remain healthy or even stay alive.

Many undocumented people are destitute and live in the shadows, fearful of what would happen to them if they identified themselves. They cannot access healthcare, emergency shelter or food, nor report or seek protection from domestic violence, sexual assault, exploitation and other awful abuses. Following the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016, the invisibility in which undocumented migrants are required to live has led to many of their human rights being effectively denied by the criminalisation of their right to work and to rent housing, while limiting their access to healthcare, contravening article 25 of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights. For people forced to endure this level of instability, it is impossible to comply with any Government guidance on self-isolation and social distancing. It is morally and practically imperative that the basic needs of all those living in this country are met.

The tragic irony is that many undocumented people who live in constant fear of the British state work in the frontline services that the Government have been at pains to praise and even clap for during this crisis. We must ensure that all workers, regardless of their immigration status, are valued and protected as we rebuild our economy and society. It is essential that the Government take immediate action to ensure that leave to remain is granted to everyone in the UK, irrespective of their nationality or immigration status. All migrants, regardless of status, ought to be granted rights that respect their humanity and allow them to live with dignity and fully participate in society.

Hate crime has more than doubled since 2013, so it has never been more important for the Government’s demonisation of migrants to end. Together, we can build a society in which everyone is valued, no matter their country of birth. More than ever, what is needed is status now.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Opposition Whip (Commons) 7:06 pm, 19th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie.

Human beings are not illegal; first and foremost, they are humans. For me, that has to be the starting point of this debate and any debate about immigration. Over the last few days, I have been contacted by dozens of people from across Luton North asking me to speak in this debate, and I was glad to see that 446 people from across my constituency had signed this petition online. That shows the strength of feeling among many of my constituents, and our unifying belief in human rights, in particular for women and children who are fleeing from some of the most horrific circumstances across the world.

When someone is locked out of the system and shut out of safe and legal routes through the immigration system, they are unable to get a job, rent a home, open a bank account or obtain a driver’s licence. It is not an easy life. People living here who have come from abroad are considered temporary for a decade and must reapply for the right to remain in their homes and jobs every two and a half years. As we have heard already, each application costs thousands of pounds per person. At present, a migrant on the 10-year route to settlement will have paid £12,937 in application fees by the time they are granted indefinite leave to remain.

I am sure most Members here will have seen in their inboxes and casework the impact that this situation has on people’s family life and wellbeing. The 10-year route to settlement is the default rate for most categories of visa holders. If at any point during the 10-year period the visa holder is unable to submit the right application at the right time, they will be classified as undocumented. Research by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that that can happen for a variety of reasons, including relationship breakdown, domestic violence, poor legal advice, a physical or mental health crisis—for the applicant or one of their relatives—an inability to pay extremely high fees, or just a simple, honest mistake.

In this pandemic, we are currently seeing how the ability for everyone in this country to access healthcare is crucial to our country’s collective wellbeing. As a principle, healthcare should be free at the point of use in our country. This virus does not care what someone looks like or where they come from. If someone is living in poor conditions, or is too scared to get the vaccine because of what might happen to them or because they might leave a paper trail for the NHS, this virus will catch up with them. I pay tribute to all the vaccination hubs that are reaching out specifically to these overlooked groups.

In my role as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on hate crime, I and Lord Sheikh have been taking up the difficulties that undocumented people have faced during this pandemic, specifically around vaccination. I welcome the early announcement by the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment that people will not need an NHS number or a fixed address to get a vaccine. However, those are not the only barriers for people reaching out for help. I wrote to him in March to ask how his Department was actively reaching out to that incredibly hard-to-reach group. I am still waiting for a response, but perhaps the Minister can shed some light on that. I appreciate that everybody is busy, but from March is a long time to wait for a response to a letter from an APPG.

This debate is ultimately about our values as a country. I am not a fully-fledged football fan, but I am a fan of our England team because of who they are and what they represent—the kind of England that stands up for and alongside one another. But do our Government reflect that? Do our leaders treat other human beings as equals? Over the last 11 years we have seen a hostile environment for people from overseas grow in our country—a hostile environment where vans were driven around neighbourhoods, where people’s aunts, nans, grandads and uncles have lived for years, telling them to go home or face prosecution; a hostile environment where as many as 170,000 NHS heroes from overseas are still waiting for the refunds they were promised by the Prime Minister for the charges they have to pay to use the NHS that they work in and support; and a hostile environment where a person from overseas whose first language is not English is more likely to have contracted covid and more likely to have ended up in hospital over the last year.

Even today, a Bill being debated in the main Chamber would see our country turn its back on some of the most vulnerable people in the world. It risks breaching international law and lowering our global standard as a country even further, and it undermines global efforts to support victims of war and persecution, while criminalising even the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for saving people from drowning in the English channel. What have we become? A human being is a human being, and our responsibility to others is not determined by what passport somebody holds.

One of Luton’s strengths is its diversity. One can visit the whole world in one street. A dear friend of mine coined a phrase: “One town, many voices”. That is very true of where I live now. Our Government could learn a lot from Luton. It is time the Government stopped the divide-and-rule style of politics, because we are all the poorer for it.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 7:12 pm, 19th July 2021

Before I comment on the speeches so far, I want to mention this. Today I visited the Crowne Plaza hotel in my constituency, which has housed asylum seekers for the last year. This weekend a young Sudanese man died at the hotel. I will not name him because I am not sure whether his family have been contacted yet, but I want to send my condolences and sympathy to all his friends that I met today. It exemplifies the precarious nature of the life of many of the people who come here to seek safety and security. We are not sure of the cause of death. There were reports this morning about the large numbers of young men who come here and go on to take their own lives. We need to learn some lessons and approach the issue with compassion. I have listened to all the speeches, and I do not think I can add to any of the recommendations that have been made, bar one.

All I can do is bring my experience to the debate. Sometimes these debates are no longer rational. They are delivered by emotions, including the emotions that I feel. I have been dealing with asylum seekers in my constituency for over 40 years, as an activist campaigning for our local law centre, or as a Greater London Council councillor, and then as the local MP. I have met hundreds of asylum seekers and hundreds of families. Their lives undocumented have been scarred and sometimes broken by the asylum system that we now have.

As others have said, the system is complex, slow, incompetent, inefficient, brutal and inhumane. And it is expensive, especially for those living in poverty because they have been forced by the hostile environment on to the margins of our society and because there is no access to legal aid. As someone has already said, most of the people we are talking about came legally into the country and went into the process but dropped out. In my experience, people drop out in many instances, first, because of appallingly poor legal advice, with people being ripped off and given expensive legal advice that was going nowhere, and, secondly, because of the huge mental health issues that they have faced, both through their suffering in their country of origin and in their travels here, and when they arrived here—a place where they thought they would find security and succour.

The issue around the fees is important because by criminalising work for these people, it means that they are exploited. In the cases I have dealt with, because work has been criminalised it forces them into illegal work, being ripped off and often not being paid. I have dealt with many women who have been exploited sexually as a result of their vulnerability, because their work is illegal. In some instances, when they have gone to the authorities and reported it, they have been picked up as an illegal. That is why people do not report and often do not identify the perpetrator of some of these appalling acts of exploitation and, in some instances, sexual violence.

I therefore agree with all the proposals that have been put forward by my hon. Friends. Some Members who have spoken today may not accept an amnesty. It has worked elsewhere, as others have said, and I think it should be considered, just as the Prime Minister considered it when he was the Mayor of London. I welcomed the statements that he made then. If people cannot go as far as that, my hon. Friends Mr Dhesi and for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), along with others, have set out a number of reforms that are readily available to us and could transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who are living in our communities. They come here for safety and security, but they also want to contribute to the society of their host community.

One further reform that I would like the Government to consider is the scrapping of no recourse to public funds, because it is forcing people into destitution, exploitation and, in many instances, situations of vulnerability that put their health and their lives at risk. The plea from the people who signed the petition, nearly 4,000 of whom were my constituents, is the same that others have made in the debate today, which is that this system is not working, even on the Government’s own terms, because 99% of people are not intimidated by the hostile environment to return their countries of origin because they are so vulnerable there. If the system is not working, even on the Government’s own terms, now is the time for reform, and it is needed urgently because people are suffering and, as we have experienced today in my constituency, people are dying as well.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 7:17 pm, 19th July 2021

It is an absolute joy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, even though we are not speaking about anything particularly joyous today.

I have just come from the House of Commons Chamber where right this minute, as we debate the suffering of undocumented migrants on these islands, the Nationality and Borders Bill is getting its Second Reading. It is a horrible piece of legislation that will discriminate against those who, according to the refugee convention, to which we are signatories, enter the UK legally but by boat. It will give preferential treatment to those who have been fortunate enough to be able to use the very few safe and legal routes.

The debate today is about undocumented migrants, stuck in legal limbo and trying to find a route to resettlement. What we are hearing is that even when migrants use those safe and legal routes, the state often continues to neglect, to discriminate and to punish, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. A number of Scottish National party colleagues and I supported an early-day motion tabled by Bell Ribeiro-Addy on the regularisation of undocumented migrants in May this year and many of my colleagues have spoken regularly about this issues.

As others and I have said, there can be numerous reasons why someone is undocumented. They might not be able to get legal advice or life might have got in the way, for example through a bereavement or an illness, theirs or that of someone close to them. They might make minor mistakes on their application. A friend of mine sent a copy of her wedding certificate instead of the original. Yes, it was her mistake but, instead of allowing her to rectify it, she had to go through the entire palaver again, including paying the fee again.

As several hon. Members have said, another big reason is that many are simply unable to pay the extortionate application fees, as mentioned by Ruth Cadbury. It is also worth noting that some hon. Members, including Rushanara Ali, spoke about people being trafficked to these islands.

My hon. Friend Stuart C. McDonald has spoken repeatedly about the costs for children registering their right to British citizenship. Most people would be surprised to hear that children born here are not automatically citizens. Indeed, they used to be, but that was repealed by the British Nationality Act 1981, which came into force in 1983. At least in 1983, a fee of just £30—that is equivalent to £100 today—was charged to register a child as a British citizen. That really raises the question about why the Home Office currently charges more than £1,000 for a migrant child, or even a child born here of migrants, to register. I appreciate that that is under review at the moment, but only because the courts are forcing the Government to look again.

I want to share the story of Paul—that is not his real name, of course—who is a constituent of mine from Nigeria. He was on minimum wage, so he was just getting by and no more, but he was doing a really good job of keeping a roof over his son’s head, and making sure that he was healthy and educated—all the things a good dad would do. He realised that his leave to remain was due to be renewed or considered, so he went to apply, only to discover that the cost was more than £2,000, which would have required him to save up £1,000 for every year of his leave to remain. That is just not possible on the minimum wage.

Paul’s leave to remain then expired, so he became an undocumented migrant, but he was doing nothing wrong. His employer had to let him go because he did not have the right to work. He had no recourse to public funds—I completely agree with what John McDonnell said about that—leaving him with no food, no electricity and rising rent arrears. He did not know what to do. He had no choice but to send his son to live with his mum.

By the time I met Paul, he was in a terrible state. He had been unable to face responding to the letters from his housing association, which was ready to evict him. When I contacted those at Spire View Housing Association, they could not have been more helpful. Reassured by the fact that I had had a meeting with the Minister to plead Paul’s case, they agreed to pause proceedings, and they then gave him money to get food and electricity. I really thank them for that, but it was all so unnecessary, as we have heard many times in the debate.

Here is the other problem: Paul got two and a half years’ leave to remain after the fee was waived. The first year of that was spent in lockdown, so understandably, he is still unemployed. In around a year’s time, he will again have to apply for an extension, and he will have to find another £2,500 or hope that the fees will be waived, but there is certainly no guarantee that they will be. If they are not, he will yet again be an undocumented migrant. With the best will in the world, if he gets another minimum wage job, it will not be possible for him to pay back his rent arrears, which have been clocked up through no fault of his own, and save that amount of money.

Paul’s was the first case that I took to the Minister, who sorted it out, to his credit. I thank him for that, but we cannot keep going to the Minister with every single case. That said, I will take this opportunity to highlight the case of another constituent, who contacted me at the weekend to say that because of an error, the fee for his wife’s spousal visa had been taken twice. He was told by the Home Office in November that it would be refunded within six weeks. He is still waiting. Last week, he was told for the umpteenth time that it would be with him in six weeks. To add insult to injury, each phone call he makes costs him £5 because of the 65p a minute charge. He really needs that £2,000. The Home Office agrees that it owes it to him, and I hope that when the Minister responds, he will offer to look into this urgently, as he did with Paul.

I can see you looking at me, Mr Hosie, so I will sum up. I urge Tom Hunt—I went on holiday to Ipswich last year—to read what the Prime Minister actually said about the notion of an amnesty for undocumented migrants. As welcome as some form of amnesty would be for those who are currently battling for the right to remain, the system as a whole needs reform. The hostile environment is alive and kicking. After an amnesty, we would bear witness to a whole new generation of migrants being subjected to this endless cycle.

Let us reform the whole system root and branch, and save ourselves and them all this unnecessary grief. Otherwise, as Sarah Owen asked, what have we become?

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office) 7:24 pm, 19th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the 103,440 people who signed the petition, including 447 from my constituency of Enfield, Southgate, enabling the debate to take place. I thank Tom Hunt for leading the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee.

It is not often that I find myself speaking in a debate in which the Prime Minister has a different view from the official Government position, but this is one such time. On previous occasions, both as Mayor of London and as a Cabinet Minister, the Prime Minister stated his support for having an amnesty for undocumented migrants. Whereas the Government say that the immigration rules already provide for undocumented migrants to regularise their status, and that such provision would unduly reward those who have not complied with immigration law, that fails to recognise the reality of the situation. There are tens of thousands of people in the UK who are undocumented, and the Government are either unaware of them, which smacks of incompetence, or unwilling to deal with the problem.

As the Prime Minister pointed out in a radio interview on LBC in 2013, when he was Mayor of London:

“If you have been here for 10 or 12 years, I’m afraid the authorities no longer really pursue you. They give up. Why not be honest about what is going on? Ultimately, you have got to reflect reality. Otherwise they are not engaged in the economy, they are not being honest with the system, they are not paying their taxes properly and it is completely crazy.”

Expanding on the topics that the Prime Minister touched on, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants points out in its excellent briefing for the debate that, according to its research, 82% of those who are undocumented arrived in the UK via legal routes and have fallen out of status. That point was made passionately by my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra.

The first point I wish to make is that the current immigration system, and its cost, is a factor in people becoming undocumented. Many Members, including my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury, mentioned the cost of making applications to become regularised. The prime route for acquiring indefinite leave to remain is 10 years of continuous residency, but people have to apply first for temporary leave to remain for two and a half years, then keep renewing it until they have acquired the 10 years. Applying for leave to remain is expensive—a successful applicant under this route will have had to pay a total of £12,937 in fees. The application process is very complex, and lots of evidence is required to be submitted. If someone slips up just once and does not submit the correct forms during the 10 years, they will become undocumented. As a consequence, adult undocumented migrants will be able to regularise their status only by applying for indefinite leave to remain, but they qualify for ILR only if they are aged 18 to 25 and have lived in the UK for over half their life. If they are over 25, they have to show that they have lived in the UK for more than 20 years and prove that they have strong ties to the UK and cannot relocate to their country of origin. Talk about making it tough for people to regularise their status. It smacks of a continuation of the hostile environment that was used mercilessly against certain sections of the community.

With undocumented migrants being denied access to work, accommodation and health services, they are easy prey for those who want to exploit them. As a consequence, they are driven underground, do under-the-counter work and are totally dependent on the shady individuals whom they now serve. The exploitation of migrants was excellently commented on by my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali and by my right hon. Friend John McDonnell. As the Prime Minister pointed out, if tens of thousands of undocumented migrants are working but not paying taxes, it will impact on the economy, so it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that urgent action is taken to regularise their status. It is not just the economy that would benefit—so would our public health, as it was only last week that we heard that, in some parts of London, undocumented migrants were being turned away from GP surgeries, where they were trying to get vaccinated against covid, because they are reluctant to give their names and addresses, for fear of being arrested. Meanwhile, those who were turned away are not putting just themselves at risk. As my hon. Friend Sarah Owen and Claudia Webbe pointed out, they risk spreading the virus among the wider community.

The Home Office does not know even roughly how many undocumented migrants are present in the UK, and it was heavily criticised for that by the Public Accounts Committee in its September 2020 report, “Immigration enforcement”. Another problem that the Government face is that they have hollowed out the immigration enforcement system. As such, they have effectively outsourced the service to the general public, leaving it up to landlords, employers and the NHS to notify the Government if someone is undocumented. The National Audit Office last did an estimate of the number of undocumented migrants living and working in the UK in 2005, and it put the figure at 430,000. There has been no official assessment of the number since then, so not only do the Government not know the scale of the problem, but even if they did and these figures are still accurate, they could not do much about it.

Can the Minister tell me whether the Home Office has made any assessment of the number of people who are currently here and are undocumented, and what the Government’s plan for tackling this issue is? The Minister will no doubt say that anyone who is here and is undocumented is here illegally, but if the Government know this, what are they doing about it? Even the Prime Minister does not believe that the Home Office will detain and deport 430,000 people, so we have a perfect storm of the Government being aware of a problem and being unable and unwilling to deal with it, with tens of thousands of people living and working in the UK undocumented.

The petition proposes an amnesty for all undocumented migrants, but a more comprehensive approach would be to focus on an accessible “route to regularised” system and meaningful reforms to stop people from falling out of status, as mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). This will offer a longer-term solution to the problem. I note that the Irish Government are currently looking at new plans for a fairer pathway to regularisation for undocumented migrants with a period of four years’ residency in Ireland. The current methods of regularising status in the UK are onerous and cumbersome, and need an urgent overhaul. In addition, the exorbitant level of fees for visas is scandalous, and clearly another barrier designed to make it harder for people to regularise their status—a continuation of the Home Office’s malevolent hostile environment.

I therefore ask the Minister whether, as this problem is not going away any time soon, the Government will make it easier for undocumented people to have their status regularised, and what the long-term plan for addressing the problem is. It is surely in all our interests that the basic needs of everyone here are met, and that— undocumented or otherwise—everyone can contribute safely, openly and without fear to our communities. For that to happen, we need to see change.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 7:31 pm, 19th July 2021

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I thank my hon. Friend Tom Hunt for having opened this debate—opening a petition debate is always quite a challenge, compared with others. It has been an interesting debate, and I will attempt to respond to the points that have been raised. However, I hope colleagues will appreciate that with eight minutes in which to speak, it is unlikely that I am going to cover the full gamut of our immigration rules and our position in this area.

My first point is to reflect on comments I made at the Dispatch Box last year at the start of the pandemic. I made very clear that for those approaching the NHS in relation to covid-19—either exhibiting symptoms and therefore looking for treatment, or looking for vaccination —the information they give will not be used for the purposes of immigration enforcement. Their status will not be checked: that is not a relevant consideration if they are approaching the NHS for treatment. We not only encourage people to come forward for vaccination, but have facilitated those who have arrived irregularly to access vaccination services. Given some of the stuff that exists on the internet about this, and given some of the comments we have heard throughout the debate, I want to make very clear that such treatment is in line with how those people would have been able to access vaccinations if they had been a UK national, now that vaccination is available to everyone over 18. From a Home Office perspective, the NHS’s operations to tackle the pandemic are not items that we will look to use for any purpose of immigration enforcement.

It might be helpful if I set out some of the background on the issue we have been debating today. First, it should be noted that the definition and coverage of this group is complex: the term “undocumented migrants” often interchanges with “illegal” or “irregular” migrants. As evidenced in this debate, it can include illegal entrants, who have perhaps arrived in the back of a lorry; overstayers who have stayed beyond the term of their visa; failed asylum seekers whose claims have been declined; those not adhering to the conditions of their stay; and even those who remain in the UK without status, but whose situation is temporary and who intend to leave in short order. For today, I will include all of those groups in our definition.

Secondly, there is no current, reliable and accurate estimate of the number of those without status who are resident in the UK. As my shadow, Bambos Charalambous, touched on, the last official Government estimate was made in the mid-2000s, when the population was believed to be around 430,000. In 2009, a report by the London School of Economics estimated that the number of irregular migrants was around 618,000. An obvious part of the problem in formulating an accurate estimate is not just calculating and agreeing on the different groups this population involves but the fact that, for obvious reasons, many of them will not come into contact with the Home Office or make their presence known here in the UK. The petition proposes an immediate amnesty for all those groups provided that they do not have a criminal record.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will not, as I have less than five minutes and this has been a lengthy debate.

The Government remain committed to an immigration policy that welcomes and celebrates people who are here legally but also deters illegal immigration. We want to encourage people with skills and potential from around the world to make the UK their home and help make the UK a dynamic global economy, but we must not reward those who exploit the system and break the rules. We must also prevent the abuse of benefits and services paid for by UK taxpayers and disrupt the criminals who exploit and profit from the vulnerable, who will be tempted to use dangerous and irregular routes to get here if they can see a clear reward at the end of it. That is right both for the British public who pay for welfare services and for those wishing to visit and settle in the UK who played by the rules.

The Government recognise that we have a responsibility to help the vulnerable and have established several schemes and programmes to assist those most in need. One example is the work that we have done to resettle genuine refugees fleeing directly from regions of conflict and instability and to provide the necessary support to help them build a life in the UK and integrate as self-sufficient members of our society. In the past six years, the Government have offered protection to 25,000 people in this way—more than any other country in Europe in that period—through a planned resettlement scheme. That is in addition to welcoming a further 29,000 people through refugee family reunion between 2015 and 2019. We have also recently introduced a new pathway to citizenship for British national overseas status holders and their family members facing draconian new security laws in Hong Kong, with an estimated 5.4 million people potentially being eligible for the scheme.

We believe that a fair and balanced system is about guaranteeing integrity in the UK’s immigration system. We must support those in need, but we must also make sure that there is a cost for those who intend to break the rules, as have Governments of all colours since the introduction of our modern immigration system, despite some of the comments we have heard today.

The proposal to offer amnesty to all those without permission to be in the UK undermines the integrity and effective working of the UK immigration system. To recognise the stay of those who have wilfully and deliberately broken our laws is first and foremost an affront to those who have done the right thing and migrated here lawfully and contributed by paying visa fees and the immigration surcharge. An amnesty for those not playing by the rules could prove divisive for those groups who feel an injustice when they have complied with our policies, and it is safe to say that it is unlikely to build public confidence in the migration system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich said, it would certainly be interesting to see the public reaction if such a policy were included in an election manifesto.

The debate is about not just the impact of those ignoring our migration rules and refusing to leave but making sure that the public feel that there is confidence in the system. Why would someone bother to apply for status or renew their visa if they knew that they could just stay and be granted that status anyway? A point ignored by the petition and by some Members is the fact that the immigration routes already provide for undocumented migrants who have not broken the law except for by remaining in the UK without lawful immigration status.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have less than two minutes, I am afraid. I appreciate that you wanted to give people time, Mr Hosie, but as the Minister I have only eight minutes to wind up, which is pretty short.

People who fear the situation in their country of origin may choose to claim asylum, and there is no cost to that. Those with qualifying family members who are present and settled in the UK can apply under the family rules, for example where there is a qualifying partner and insurmountable obstacles to family life continuing outside the UK. The private life rules provide for those who have been in the UK for a particularly long time to regularise their status. That said, we are in the process of reforming our immigration rules and, as many Members may be aware, I have met the group We Belong to discuss the current process for those who arrived here as children or were born here but did not qualify for British citizenship. We aim to simplify the settlement rules in the near future, as part of our wider work on the new migration system, which will include some changes in response to the points raised by that group, and we will reduce the number of people ending up on the 10-year route to settlement. We accept that too many people are on that route.

I have had to give a fairly short summary of the Government response, but we do not believe that granting an amnesty, as proposed by this petition, would be appropriate. It would undermine the rules—actually, it would make the whole creation of rules pointless if people could just ignore them and get status anyway.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich 7:39 pm, 19th July 2021

Thank you very much, Mr Hosie, for chairing this debate so expertly. I thank the Minister for his response and every other participant for making this debate pretty well-tempered and balanced.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

The hon. Lady should not worry. As I was saying, it has been a pretty balanced debate in which we have heard both sides of the argument. I also think that there is a shared concern for the individuals in question. However, this is a very complicated issue, with unintended consequences.

It seems to me that very few Members agreed with the petition’s call for pretty much a blanket amnesty for every single undocumented migrant. However, I think there is space somewhere for a very important debate about how we can potentially do something in this area.

Obviously, one of the real concerns is what amnesties might mean in terms of encouraging future illegal crossings. In some respects, if the Opposition supported the Bill going through Parliament today and if that Bill were enacted, as I hope it will be, they might think that the public were in a much better place to have a debate about a reasoned amnesty and pathway for citizenship because there would be public confidence that, in doing so, we were not fuelling illegal crossings from the continent. That may be, at some point, where we get to: if there is confidence that we have a rules-based immigration system and we are confident that we are in a better position to tackle illegal crossings and make determinations about the people who aspire to live in our country, perhaps at that point we could have that important debate about amnesties.

Actually, there are some shortcomings when it comes to an amnesty for those who have been here for over 10 years. I said that I saw some of the arguments in favour of that, but it is a complicated issue.

Clearly, though, this has been a productive debate. This issue needs to be debated much further; I am sure that it will be. Again, I thank the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition. Hopefully, they will feel that, at the very least, the issue—in a general sense—has had a good airing and been thoroughly debated today.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered e-petition 567681, relating to an amnesty for undocumented migrants.

Sitting adjourned.