Minors Entering the UK: 1948 to 1971

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Monday 30th April 2018

(6 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Caroline Nokes Portrait The Minister for Immigration (Caroline Nokes)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and all right hon. and hon. Members across the House who have participated in the debate. They have spoken with passion, knowledge and indeed determination.

As we can clearly see, there is significant public interest in today’s debate, and rightly so. I thank members of the public who have attended, as well as all those people—nearly 200,000 of them—who added their name to the petition. The debate was obviously scheduled before the tabling of the urgent question, and I am probably at somewhat of a disadvantage compared with those Members who could be in the main Chamber for at least some of the earlier debate. The message conveyed by the new Secretary of State for the Home Department makes it clear that he is absolutely, personally invested in this issue.

Let us be in no doubt about the debt of gratitude that this country owes to the Windrush generation. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay described in his opening speech, they were invited to come to the United Kingdom immediately after the second world war and in the decades that followed to help us to build modern Britain.

As I said, the new Home Secretary was on his feet in the main Chamber when this debate began. He has rightly made it his clear priority to address Windrush, building on the work of his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), who showed commitment to addressing the issue. It was a pleasure to work with her in the Home Office, and I look forward to supporting the new Home Secretary in continuing that vital work.

I would like to do justice to the comments, questions and individual cases raised by Members this afternoon. All of them are important. Many Members will have noticed that I took copious notes throughout the debate, but I mention first the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) even though, somewhat shamefacedly, I wrote very little about his contribution. That is because I preferred to listen—to his passion and to his determination to convey to me, Members, the public and the Government how strongly he feels that we must right this wrong. We are determined to do so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who is not in his place, on his tone. In fact, I congratulate all hon. Members who have contributed on their tone. There has been real consideration of the issue and real determination to convey the message to me as powerfully as possible. I therefore wish to start by saying that of course I feel shame and of course I am deeply, deeply sorry.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) raised three cases, highlighting real and personal stories, which were similar to the personal stories that I heard over the weekend when I was in Croydon and in Sheffield with caseworkers who are on the frontline, doing their best to help people through the process. I have to say that I was very impressed with the determination of those caseworkers to be sympathetic and understanding, and to talk people through the process as gently as they possibly could while at the same time enabling them to give their stories and to provide a picture of their life in the UK—helping them through a process with which we should have been helping them much earlier.

We cannot fail to be moved and to be ashamed when confronted with the individual stories, but as a result, be determined to get the wrong righted, to sort the cases out and to make sure that the legal status is confirmed. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned three cases; we have done a very rapid trawl of those appointments that are already scheduled and I believe that one of those cases will hopefully be resolved tomorrow.

It is important that we as Members convey to our constituents and to the public at large the fact that this process is designed to be constructive and to help. When I first spoke on this issue, I tried to impress on everyone the fact that we needed to have confidence built in the system, so that people would have the courage to come forward. Undoubtedly, the strongest advocates are the people who have been for their interviews and had their status confirmed, who have been willing to speak to the media to confirm that that has happened.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) spoke of the melting pot of Cardiff; I represent part of the city of Southampton, another area that has a very large port. I was very fortunate last Thursday night to go and meet, albeit in the road that crosses the edge of the constituency, one of my constituents called Don John, who for many decades has been a leader of the Caribbean community in Southampton.

I discussed the issue with him, knowing very well that this weekend, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) was holding an event in her constituency attended by Home Office officials, in order to give confidence to those from Bristol who might be affected that the Home Office is there to help. I said to Don on Thursday night, “Let’s see how the event in Bristol goes, but what I can do as a local Member is to make sure that people in Southampton have the opportunity to have an event. I will make sure that there are Home Office officials there.” I say that to all Members: where there is a significant community that they think will be affected, let us reach out to communities; let us not be just a reception centre in the various places that we have up and down the country; let’s make a real effort to go to communities and make sure that events take place in places that are comfortable for people.

I am the first to acknowledge that there can be barriers to coming and making contact with the Home Office. Working with my right hon. Friend the new Home Secretary, they are barriers that I am determined to beat down, because they should not be there.

Lyn Brown Portrait Lyn Brown
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I am genuinely delighted to hear what the Minister has to say. She is a very competent Minister, but there is an issue of trust. I do not see my communities beating their way to her door, because that trust has been badly damaged.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to talk about trust, which is why I take her comment on the chin. We have a duty to rebuild that trust, and I am determined that we must do so through demonstration and through action, and through an assurance from me and those working on the taskforce that no case will be passed to immigration enforcement. When somebody contacts that helpline, we have absolutely undertaken that none of those details will be passed on to immigration enforcement.

David Lammy Portrait Mr Lammy
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The Minister will recognise that the Government still say that there is a burden of proof, although they have lowered it. If there were Windrush generation or Commonwealth people who contacted the Home Office who did not meet that burden, so did not get their status, would they be subject to enforcement? That fear is very real.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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The right hon. Gentleman raises an important question. I give that assurance. People may well come forward who cannot not produce the proof. It is imperative, if we are to build trust, that we say, “We will not pass those details to immigration enforcement.” The message has to be what I saw on Saturday: we want to be able to help people to build their own story. We want to be able to use whatever disparate pieces of information they may have. A gentleman came to Croydon on Saturday morning who could produce his City & Guilds qualification in horticulture, I believe. That one certificate was pretty much the only evidence that he had of where he had been at school. We have to listen to people and use our own records.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
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Does the Minister have a view about the legal aid question? In the old days, we all had legal aid centres that people could go to, but they simply do not exist in communities in the way that they did, due to Government reductions. [Interruption.] Will she comment on the possibility of legal aid?

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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I am slightly concerned that there is an outbreak of coughing in the debate.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
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It’s freezing!

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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The hon. Lady is right—it is absolutely freezing. I have been shaking throughout the debate, although that may not be due just to the temperature.

That is an interesting question, and we are already working with the Ministry of Justice on a review of legal aid. I do not want people to have to use lawyers; I want them to be able to go through an easy process. I get the message from the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) that we have to build trust, and I am determined to do so.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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I will finish this point. I do not want people to have to incur more stress and cost—we will reimburse them for their legal costs already, as part of the compensation scheme, which I will address.

There is an important aspect here: we are determined to make this easy, by having the most senior and able caseworkers—who we are trying to empower, through a change of culture in the Home Office—to take decisions. We want not the “computer says no” attitude, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset and many others have referred to, but a position where, better than the computer saying yes, the human says yes. That is a real change.

Eleanor Smith Portrait Eleanor Smith
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I am one of the second generation of Windrush; my parents came in 1954. I really do not understand why people have to prove that they live in this country when they have children aged 30 or older and probably have grandkids, too. Why are we talking about having to prove it? Why can we not just give them a blanket exception? I do not understand why, if people have entered the country from 1948 onwards, and up to 1974, which is about 45 years ago, the Minister is talking about having to prove that they live in this country. Is that what she is saying?

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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There is a significant question of deemed leave and processes in 1973 that did not give people a legal document that demonstrated their status. That is the failing that we have to put right. There may well be people out there who do not come forward. We have to work to give people confidence, but also to give them an important document that enables them to go on and get their British citizenship—all at no cost. I do not want anyone to fall foul of this going forward. If we just grant deemed leave again, we may find ourselves in this situation again.

Many Members have mentioned the difference from EU settled status. That is an important and difficult point. Since I came into this job, a great deal of my time and energy have been taken up with making sure that the settled status scheme, which we will open later this year, will work. It matters to me that it works digitally and easily, and that, rather than the “computer says no” mentality, we have a default position whereby if people are here, the computer will say yes.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) asked about whether the app will work on iPhone; we have been working on that for many months. It works on an Android phone, but Apple as yet has not released the update that would enable it to work on iPhones. I recognise that that is a problem. I encourage all right hon. and hon. Members to talk about that, because I cannot force Apple to participate—I wish I could, but I cannot. It is important that, for those EU citizens, many of whom have been here for years just like the Windrush generation, we make the process simple, straightforward and digital.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan
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I thank the Minister for the clarification that no case will be passed on for enforcement, but we have seen that this is not simply a question of enforcement. There is the health issue—people are suffering from cancer and dying—and people are becoming homeless or losing jobs. What will she do to help them?

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is absolutely right to say that the taskforce is prioritising appointments for people in vulnerable positions—those who are out of employment or at risk of falling out of employment, those with health conditions and those with problems with tenancies. There is a significant group of people with whom we must work, but it is right to prioritise people on the basis of need. We are working really hard. In Sheffield, it was great to see call-backs going on, appointments being made and people having conversations.

My right hon. Friend the former Home Secretary made it very clear that we will compensate people for loss, but it is right that we get the compensation scheme right from the outset. Members have raised interesting points about what should be included in that, many of which might seem really self-evident and straightforward—it should cover legal costs, loss of employment and housing, and so on—but there might be other aspects to it. A number of people have talked about counselling for stress and trauma. It is important that we have an independent person who enables and empowers us to get that right from the outset. That will take a little time, but it is important that we have someone independent of the Home Office who is able to engender trust.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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Will the Minister give way?

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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I will take an intervention from the right hon. Gentleman, even though he has not been here long.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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I thank the Minister for the welcome remedial measures she is outlining, which could help to deal with the outcomes, but does she not recognise that this issue comes from deep systemic and cultural problems inside the Home Office? Members of Parliament raised cases and pointed out the flaws in the Home Office’s arguments, but it utterly refused to reconsider them. This is not just about the computer, or the initial person at the end of the line, saying no; it is about a failure of management then to remedy things. That is why we are having to get into compensation, taskforces and everything else. The Home Office will still have those deep problems. What is she going to do about that?

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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Unfortunately, the right hon. Gentleman takes me away from the contributions that have been made and towards the—I do not know how to describe it—somewhat drier technical detail provided to me by officials. I am happy to move on to that, but I would like first to respond to the points made by Members who have been here for the whole debate.

I have addressed some important points about settled status for EU citizens and the responsibility for getting that right, but I would like to highlight the history lesson and information provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). He painted a picture of how the Government can use evidence that is already at our disposal. That is really important. We can share data with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—the list is long. That is exactly what the taskforce is doing. We are trying to lift the burden from individuals and place it on ourselves so that we provide the information and ensure we get it right.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) rightly started by thanking all those from the Windrush generation who have contributed so much. She raised difficult and important questions for me about how we stop this happening again, and she was absolutely right to do so. We have to stop it happening again. We have to ensure that the same cannot happen to future cohorts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) mentioned the Gurkhas—that Nepalese community —who are so numerous at their base in Hampshire, and we must be mindful the whole while that other communities may well be impacted. I have indicated time and again that uppermost in my mind is the truly enormous number of people from the European Union—3.3 million—who are already here. I do not underestimate the scale of that task.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East asked how we can right the wrong done to her constituent, Paulette Wilson. Mrs Wilson absolutely deserves a personal apology. I am not sure that me saying sorry today is adequate. If the hon. Lady would like me to do so, I would be very happy to meet Mrs Wilson. Every one of us was struck by the severe and cruel injustice that was done to her.

The hon. Lady and the Opposition spokesman raised questions about how many people have been affected, how many have been detained and how many may have been subjected to letters asking them to leave the country voluntarily, or potentially even to removal. We are trawling through the Home Office computer system—the caseworker information database, which goes back to 2002—and scrutinising cases very carefully, using both date of birth and nationality information to verify that, as one might expect. I do not wish to get into numbers until I can be confident that they are correct. We have an absolute duty to ensure that we get that right. To date, we have not found any single individual who has been removed from the country wrongly. However, I wish to ensure that we get it right.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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Everybody is leaping to their feet. I will take a final intervention from the right hon. Gentleman, but I have to crack on a bit.

David Lammy Portrait Mr Lammy
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There is an important group of people who may not have been removed but who are watching and listening to this debate and communicating with their families in this country. That is the group of people who went back to the Caribbean, most often to attend a funeral, and were not allowed to come back to this country. It is very important that those people have access to the hotline and to compensation—many of them lost their jobs and are still there—and that they are properly tracked and attended to.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point those people out, and I am very conscious—

Peter Bottomley Portrait Sir Peter Bottomley
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Will the Minister give way?

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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May I conclude my point before more people jump in? The right hon. Gentleman is right to point that issue out. As the former Home Secretary said last week, we will facilitate those people’s coming home if they wish to. Of course, we must also ensure that visas are available to those who have settled back in their country of origin or elsewhere, should they wish to come here on a visit or relocate here permanently. That is crucial. It is important that we ensure that we enable that to happen for them.

Peter Bottomley Portrait Sir Peter Bottomley
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It may be that the Minister wants to write to the right hon. Member for Tottenham after the debate. Officials may want—not today, but in time—to consider and advise Ministers on checking with airlines. Often, those people went with a valid ticket to an airline desk and were refused boarding by the airline because they might be refused entry to the country. The airlines will almost certainly have a record of that. It would be useful information.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which I have made to officials. I was very concerned that people might be turned away at airline desks. We absolutely must not let that happen. Equally, the Border Force in the UK has to understand that this is a generation of people to whom we owe a duty to get things right from this point forward. We cannot allow this dreadful situation to arise again.

Lyn Brown Portrait Lyn Brown
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On the issue of trust, my constituents are concerned that deportations are continuing, despite our debating the issue and despite reassurances from the Minister, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. One of my constituents, Zita, contacted me to ask about flight PVT070, which she tells me is about to go to Jamaica with people on board who are being deported.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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indicated dissent.

Lyn Brown Portrait Lyn Brown
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I would be grateful if the Minister put that shake of the head into words and on the record.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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It is absolutely not. We are looking very closely at all our enforcement practices to make sure that nobody can be impacted in this way, and that is crucial.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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I hope hon. Members will not object if I move on somewhat. I apologise, but there are some important matters that I must get on the record, and I intend to do so.

I am very clear that there has been a failure by successive Governments to ensure that individuals who arrived before 1973 have the documentation they need. We are putting that right as a matter of urgency. My right hon. Friend the former Home Secretary made a statement to the House last week in which she set out our approach to the Windrush generation, including the compensation scheme, which I have already referred to.

I am a pragmatic politician, and I do not apologise for that. I have always been focused on finding solutions, and that is exactly what we are trying to do now. When we saw Windrush cases emerging, we became focused on the operational side of helping those individuals. As the former Home Secretary said, we were too slow to identify the pattern and recognise it as part of a wider issue. For that, I am very sorry.

I want to make sure that we not only put this right but improve our mechanisms, to ensure that if a similar systemic issue were to arise again, the Home Office would be able to identify and resolve it much more clearly. The new contact centre will be at the centre of that, monitoring trends from incoming calls to understand where the problems are. We will supplement that with insight and customer feedback to UK Visas and Immigration. I was asked whether there would be a time limit, and I can reassure Members that there will not be.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
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I thank the Minister for being so generous with her time. Will she clarify whether Home Office staff receive a bonus for the number of removals they make?

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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I am absolutely unaware of any bonus scheme for removals. What I want to focus on today is not removals but making sure, for the Windrush generation, that we get their British citizenship granted as swiftly as we can and at no cost to them.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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The right hon. Lady has sat silently so far—I am surprised.

Yvette Cooper Portrait Yvette Cooper
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I have been listening, and I wanted to hear the contributions—I will want to speak in the debate on Wednesday. My hon. Friend’s question is important, because I heard rumours that the head of immigration enforcement and senior enforcement officials have had bonuses linked to enforcement performance, including meeting removals targets. I appreciate that the Minister may not know the details right now, but it is really important that she finds some urgent clarity on that. It would be very disturbing to have a target-driven system that rewards people for removals they make, when there are no independent appeals against many removals and enforcement.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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The right hon. Lady has asked a specific question about bonuses, and I have said on the record I am not aware of any such system of bonuses. However, I will undertake to go away and find out, prior to Wednesday’s debate, when I look forward to being able to go over this issue in more detail, with more time, in the main Chamber.

I know, as everyone here and—I believe—everyone in this House knows, that we regard the Windrush generation as being of us and part of us. I believe the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green referred to them as being “part of the furniture”. We regard them as British, but we need to ensure that they have the legal documentation confirming that. Nationality law is incredibly complicated, and I want to ensure that their legal status is cemented as soon as possible. We have made it clear that we wish the process to be simple and that nobody should have to undergo a life in the UK test or attend a citizenship ceremony unless they wish to. Some may, and we would want to make that available to them.

Of course, some may not wish to be British citizens at all. We respect that position, but we still need to confirm their status here—free of charge—as someone able to remain in the UK and access services. This point was made earlier: there will also be people in the Windrush generation who, having worked all their lives in Britain, have retired to the country of their birth but obviously retain strong ties here. We should respect and nurture those ties. Should they wish to come back, we will allow that.

I sympathise with anyone who has found the process difficult, and I would like to assure hon. Members that we are doing everything we can to ensure that it is as smooth as possible. I am pleased that more than 100 people have now been issued with the documentation they sought, but please be assured that I am in no way complacent about that. We will continue to improve the service provided.

David Lammy Portrait Mr Lammy
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There is another important point. The Minister will understand that some important Caribbean countries—St Kitts, Antigua, St Lucia and others—got their independence after 1973, and a bunch of people are concerned about the 1973 cut-off. Will she say a little more about the situation for those people, some of whom may have come to this country as British subjects from countries whose independence did not come until later in the 1970s or early 1980s? Antigua’s was as late as 1981.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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Of course, my right hon. Friend the previous Home Secretary addressed how we solve the status and situation of those who may have come here between 1973 and 1988. I am aware of this issue, and, going forward, I want to ensure that we have a comprehensive package for those whom I am going to regard as the Windrush children, of whom there are very, very many.

As I have said, I was in Sheffield and Croydon over the weekend, listening to the calls being made and the quality of the conversations going on—they were conversations; they were in no way interrogative. In our process, we have a script that is evolving over time. At the end of every day, the script changes and the lessons that have been learned from those conversations during the day are used to ensure that things are better going forward. It is an evolving, iterative process.

I think I have addressed most of the questions raised. If important aspects have been raised that I have not addressed, I will make them very clear to the House on Wednesday. We are working hard to resolve the situation. The new Home Secretary has made his position, personal investment and commitment very clear, and we are working to ensure that it cannot happen again.

As we have heard, this year is the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush arriving at Tilbury docks, which makes the situation all the more poignant and tragic. The Government will be celebrating Windrush day, and in the next few days I will have the opportunity to speak to the new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about how we can use that occasion to build trust with those we have let down. It is not lost on me that our new Home Secretary has come to the Home Office from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and, of course, he introduced the paper on integration, which is so important going forward. He has a strong ally in the new Secretary of State in his old Department, which I am sure will provide a strong link.

I reassure right hon. and hon. Members that the Government are committed to righting the wrongs for the Windrush generation, to ensuring that those who have the right to be here in the United Kingdom are never treated in such a way again and to restoring trust in the Home Office to deliver the outcome that people deserve. I am proud of the work that has been done over the past fortnight to set us on the right course, and I look forward to working with colleagues and officials in the coming months to accomplish those aims.