Coronavirus Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Andrew SelousMain Page: Andrew Selous (Conservative - South West Bedfordshire)
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If everyone takes around three to four minutes, they will all get a chance to come in.
I rise to speak to new clause 7 together with the new schedule it introduces, which is new schedule 1. May I start by thanking the Clerks and other staff for their extraordinary work in processing so many amendments in such a short time?
The changes that we propose are designed to ensure that the Government’s response is truly for all of society, as the World Health Organisation has urged, and we will do that by seeking to ensure that nobody is excluded from getting the support they need simply by virtue of their immigration status. Our immigration and asylum laws and processes, touching as they do on millions of people right across our country, must be made to help, not hinder, the public health response to coronavirus. If we let down those people who are subject to immigration control, we are letting down the whole country, and if we fail to protect those people, we fail to protect the population as a whole.
The new schedule is in four parts. The first relates to Home Office rules that prevent many people from accessing public funds. Many of this group will already be hugely marginalised, including a very significant proportion of the street homeless and destitute. As matters stand, many more will become destitute because their earnings will stop or sofa-surfing will no longer be possible, and there will be no social security to fall back on. Meanwhile, across the country many shelters providing the only source of refuge are having to close down, either because dormitory conditions are no longer fit for purpose, or because the brilliant volunteers who staff such centres can no longer undertake the necessary work amid this very serious crisis. Suspending the no recourse to public funds rules would be a first but significant step towards allowing everyone to access the financial support and accommodation they need to protect themselves.
The second part of the schedule deals with those who are in immigration detention. At the end of last year, there were about 1,600 people in immigration detention, most of them in immigration detention centres, with a small number in prisons. We know from recently published expert advice that detention centres provide ideal conditions for the spread of the coronavirus, and that 60% of those in such facilities could rapidly be infected if the virus got hold there. In fact, one woman tested positive for covid-19 in Yarl’s Wood at the weekend. Of course, the detainee population will include a significant number with underlying health conditions.
We know now that there is no realistic prospect of immigration removals taking place imminently, and imminent removal is of course the legal threshold for justifying detention in the first place. The clear consequences of these two facts, when we bring them together, is that continued detention is not only morally wrong, but it undermines the public health response to the coronavirus outbreak and is almost certainly illegal. We welcome the fact that the Home Office has started by releasing about 300 of the current estimate of 1,200 people in immigration detention. We ask it to move faster and urgently in getting the other 900 out of there as well.
Thirdly, we turn to the issue of the asylum process. Those working on behalf of asylum seekers are concerned at the lack of communication with them about what changes are being made to these processes. There was a welcome announcement made ending the requirement to access or re-access the asylum procedure by attending at either Croydon or Liverpool, yet this very afternoon I am reliably informed that a new arrival in Glasgow was told by Home Office staff to get a bus to Croydon, essentially, to make an asylum claim. Without support from the Scottish Refugee Council, that individual would be street homeless tonight. That is clearly undermining, rather than helping, the public health approach.
We need the Home Office to look at all asylum processes and procedures, and reporting requirements, interviews and other appointments must all be suspended. We need to look at the state of the asylum accommodation, and at the rules about why asylum seekers who have medical skills are being prevented from working at this particular time. We need to look at asylum support and at support for providing accommodation to the destitute and the homeless.
Fourthly, the proposed new schedule would make provision for those whose visas are about to run out or whose visas have already run out but are prevented from travelling home. Many Members will have been contacted by constituents with concerns about people in that situation. There were reports today about an 80-year-old Ukrainian woman whose visit visa has just expired. Her solicitor phoned the Home Office and was told that she should consider driving home. Clearly, asking an 80-year-old woman to return to Ukraine by car is simply ludicrous. It is time, as our proposed new schedule suggests, for the Government to put in place an automatic extension of leave to remain, at least until September or later, depending on the advice the Government get from medical officers.
I pay tribute to all those who have pushed the Government to accept a more limited time period for the extraordinary powers provided for by this Bill, including my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), while at the same time ensuring that there can be an extension, with appropriate scrutiny and approval by this House. We support the principles behind new clause 2. The provisions that impinge most on civil liberties deserve the greatest of scrutiny. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for tabling amendment 66, and we are grateful to the Government for listening to her concerns.