Siobhain McDonaghMP Main Page: Siobhain McDonagh (Labour - Mitcham and Morden)
Department Debates - View all Siobhain McDonagh's debates with the Home Office
(2 years, 2 months ago)Westminster Hall
Indeed I do. I would add that I think the previous Home Secretary was completely committed and was taking action to address the issue. However, I also have tremendous faith in the newly appointed Home Secretary and that he will get to the heart of the issue and make sure that things are put right and that the lessons that need to be learned are learned, and I shall come on to that point now.
Going forward, officials working at all levels of the Home Office must learn important lessons from the failures that have beleaguered the Windrush generation and their children. Those mistakes should never have happened, and there were warning signs, with Members coming forward in recent weeks to say that they were receiving casework relating to the issue.
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I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that point; he is absolutely right to do so. The point I was making about the context is that measures have accrued over time. I am grateful to him for that point of detail.
I do not quote what I am about to in the interest of inflaming matters, because I do not think we should be in the business of inflaming matters; we should be in the business of cold, cool assessment. However, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) was right when he quoted an Immigration Minister from 2007, who described his policy as flushing illegal migrants out and
“trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally.”
I do not think that, at the time, that was a particularly unreasonable thing to say. And it was John Reid, as Home Secretary, who said:
“We need to make living and working here illegally ever more uncomfortable and constrained.”
The reality is that Governments of all stripes have talked and acted tough.
All I really want to say is that this is a shameful episode. As has been indicated, it is a case of error, not conspiracy. It is incumbent on this Government, because they happen to be in office, to make things right, but we owe it to the people of this country, whether they are here from the Windrush generation or from elsewhere, to look at this coolly, frankly and, above all, fairly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin, and to follow the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who made an incredibly powerful and moving speech.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) was absolutely right when he pointed out that we cannot forget history. We should not try to forget history, warts and all, the good and the bad. Any nation that tries to pretend that all its history is one or the other is a nation that is not at ease with itself and that is trying to fool its residents.
It is important for both the Labour party and the Conservative party to remember where quite a lot of this stuff came from. Looking back to the middle and the end of the Blair-Brown premiership and the early days of the coalition, both the main parties in this country had become terrified of either the British National party or the UK Independence party. We saw them nibbling away at our bases; we saw them pandering to prejudices, very often long held, but very rarely spoken of. We saw it in industrial areas; we saw it in all sorts of areas in this country.
I do not like using the phrase “dog-whistle politics”, because I always think it is a blunt instrument. To an extent, however, Governments of both persuasions—of both colours—were under the most enormous pressure to be tough, and sometimes we slightly lost our nerve. Principled mainstream politicians lost the resolve to kick back against that, to face it down and to say why that narrative was wrong. I am absolutely concerned that, as our concern grew, so did some of these policies, which were put in place by both Governments, and which, with hindsight, might have been phrased a little better and should have been thought of a little more deeply.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) made an incredibly powerful speech, which was thoughtful and sensible—his hallmarks. He was right to draw our attention to some of those quotes from Labour Ministers involved with the Home Office or with immigration specifically. John Reid, now the noble Lord Reid, said as Home Secretary:
“We need to make living and working here illegally ever-more uncomfortable and constrained.”
We also heard how the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), when immigration Minister, said:
“What we are proposing here will, I think, flush illegal migrants out. We are trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally.”
I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) to draw our attention back to the different definitions. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the immigration Minister, the former Home Secretary, the current Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)—the chairman of the Home Affairs Committee—who has joined us, and all of us should and must be at the most enormous pains to point out that division of public policy. All of us will have been annoyed and irritated over the years, when we have entered into debates with members of the public, who could be constituents of ours or not, in which asylum seekers, refugees, legal immigrants and illegal immigrants have all been put into one pot. Instead, we should look at the silos and the policies that flow from that.
My right hon. Friends who are involved in the Home Office, and who are at the head of Government, have made clear the Government’s shame at what has happened and have made clear their apology. I cannot think of a single colleague on the Conservative Benches who would demur from that position.
I happen to be one of those Conservatives who has been perfectly relaxed about immigration and the freedom of movement. As somebody who is a quarter Irish, a quarter Greek and half Welsh, and as somebody who was born and brought up in Cardiff, how could I not be relaxed about immigration? Cardiff’s marvellous docks were a huge melting pot for the world’s nations as they came to work in and grow our south Wales economy. They enriched south Wales not just financially, but culturally, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
We have to be clear. We must not throw the baby out with the bath water by conflating, yet again, the clear legal definitions of legal and illegal migration. The Windrush generation are not becoming British citizens. As the right hon. Member for Tottenham has said, they are British citizens, and the law seeks to confirm those rights and privileges.
In central and local government, not just in the arena of public policy, but across the piece, we have moved too much towards the “computer says no” approach—to use the “Little Britain” phrase—where boxes are ticked or they are not. In any future arrangement, we must ensure that officials and Ministers who are dealing with these often complex matters have the opportunity—the space, as it were—for more discretion and discernment in taking important decisions.
As the Member for North Dorset, and as someone who has never had their right to be in this country questioned, I am not sure that I can envisage how people’s lives must have been turned not just upside down, but inside out. Like one of those snow domes, their lives have been shaken, and the whole picture of their everyday lives has become so distorted that they cannot recognise it and they feel like aliens in their own country.
I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) when he intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay: people fall into saying it is either a cock-up or a conspiracy. I would be the first to stand up and say so if I believed something was a conspiracy, but I do not. I think it was genuinely an oversight. “Oversight” may be a trivial word to use, as it in no way encompasses the emotional gamut of how people have had to respond to these issues, but I take enormous comfort from the fact that we as a Government are seeking to put these things right.
As the right hon. Member for Tottenham reminded us, and as I pointed out in my opening remarks, we should not forget history, and nor should we seek to rewrite the welcome, or sometimes the lack of it, that the first Windrush generation received. On the posters in the bed and breakfasts in Kensington, Notting Hill and Portobello Road that said, “No Irish, no dogs, no blacks”, the blacks were always at the bottom of the list—dogs were preferred to black people. Other issues included the colour bar and access to housing—the Rachmanisation of the London housing stock.
We should not delude ourselves. These people answered the clarion call of the—I use the phrase of the right hon. Member for Tottenham— mother country. Just as they had answered in time of war, so they answered in time of peace. The battlefields of the first and second world wars were indelibly stained not only with the blood of white Anglo-Saxons, but with the blood of empire—of people who realised that the values that we were trying to defend and the attempt to deter and defeat the foe were right. It was right for them to come to fight alongside us. I am never quite certain that that debt has ever been truly recognised.
As we all know, the 1968 speech cast a long shadow over the immigration debate. People would often veer away from discussing immigration for fear of being accused of having racial or racist tendencies. We have moved on from that, but, by golly, when such events come about, we have to pause to remind ourselves, and to reinforce the fact, that the debate is not anchored by racial prejudice or a racial agenda in any way.
I do not like the phrase “Illegals will be flushed out”, but I fully support, as I believe do the vast majority of people who are here legally, irrespective of colour, the need to be firm and resolute in our approach to migration to this country, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham alluded to. We need to ensure that those who are here legally are given the warm embrace of a friend and neighbour, through which we entirely recognise the unquantifiable contribution that they make to our society, not just economically, but socially, culturally and from a community base.
My right hon. Friend the Minister is all too aware of the scale of the task and the speed with which it needs to be completed, as is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, whom I welcome to his new position. Nobody should be under any illusion as to the seriousness and determination of Her Majesty’s Government, not just to resolve the problem properly, promptly and speedily, but to ensure that the “computer says no” response, and this sort of problem, do not arise again.
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The hon. Ladies can sort out between themselves who I am giving way to.
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First, I do not know when landing cards came in. If someone arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948 or on a ship in the next 15 or 20 years, I do not think there were landing cards. Secondly, if they were British, would they have been asked to fill in a landing card, even if they had arrived by air? I think the answer is no.
I campaigned for Krishna Maharaj, who spent 31 years wrongly imprisoned in Florida. He is British. He was born in Trinidad, but being born in Trinidad made him British, and British people do not fill in landing cards. We allow distractions to take away from the common-sense point: what on earth are we doing thinking that the landing cards would solve the problem? Even the manifests do not solve the nationality problem. When people came here, especially from the Caribbean, after the war, they were British until our laws started to change. But we are not talking about that generation; we are talking about the generation of the Sam Kings, the Arthur Torringtons and the like, who also wrote about the contribution that the people from the Caribbean made before 1948 as well as during 1948 and afterwards.
For those who want to know where targets came from, they were not new in 2010 or in 2015. They are discussed in the Will Somerville book, “Immigration under New Labour”, and I have no doubt they were probably there before new Labour as well. What we should say to those who are undocumented British nationals, subjects, citizens, is, “How soon and how easily can we give you the documents you need?” We are not talking about someone who says they are 17 when they are actually 23 and have sadly had to come across the Mediterranean from Syria or from another country in the past two or three years. We are talking about people who, just by looking at them, I can tell have been around for almost as long as I have, or as long as my children have, which is still quite some time. We should say, “Let’s get you documented in the easiest, fastest, simplest and fairest way possible.”
Those advising Ministers, whether inside a Department or outside, should always say to a Minister, “Is this fair? Is it right? Will it work?” I look to this man here, my brother, the right hon. Member for Tottenham. If we sat together for three quarters of an hour I could probably solve much of this and take away the anxiety. We could apologise for the distress that has been wrongly caused to too many for too long, but the fact is common sense normally works. Let us apply it.