Immigration Debate

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Department: Home Office
Monday 19th October 2020

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned that you have been here forever. I am not sure that that is the case, but I know of your association with the all-party parliamentary group on the Holy See, and your Urbi et Orbi before the recess every year certainly means that you are a well-known figure in the House. Of course, in that Chair, Sir David, you are infallible in matters of debate.

I thank the Petitions Committee for allocating the time for this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on leading it and on his speech. I also congratulate the hon. Members for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Redcar (Jacob Young), because not only did they win their seats but they beat very good Labour MPs, who were friends and colleagues of mine and who had worked incredibly hard in those seats. Do not think for a minute that the lessons that the Labour party has to learn on why and how we lost those seats are lost on me, because they are not.

I rather enjoyed the railing against the Trotskyist, Marxist liberal left, because as I think the Minister will testify, it certainly does not land many punches on me. Having led last week on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill for the Opposition, it certainly lends new ballast to my left-wing credentials that is much in need. All I would say is that some of the arguments that were rehearsed felt a little passé, because the Labour party is very much under new management.

As an MP for the north in the seat of St Helens, I very much take the point that my constituents, like those of the hon. Gentlemen I congratulated, have concerns about immigration that are in no way motivated by racism—quite the opposite. People are concerned about their jobs, the impact of coronavirus and what they see as a lack of Government support and action for the communities that they live in, so I caution them slightly on some of what they said about immigration being “the” priority for people in in the north of England, notwithstanding that they will know their constituencies much better than I will, of course.

Moving on to the substantive points raised, there is much that we could talk about, but I want to focus my remarks. We have all witnessed the increase in channel crossings in small boats over the summer months with huge concern. I recognise the strength of feeling in the petition and on this issue, and I know that seeing those boats for many people represents a breakdown in the systems that the Government have put in place to manage migration. I do not think that that is an unjustifiable view.

However, the issues here are complex and require a considered, compassionate and effective response. It is necessary that our words and actions both reflect an understanding of the harrowing and appalling circumstances that have resulted in many individuals and families taking extreme and desperate decisions, and also prevent any further exploitation by criminal gangs and traffickers of those facing such impossible decisions. We need to ensure that the United Kingdom’s strategy reflects our values—that we respect the rule of law and address illegality—and ensure that we provide safe and legal routes to those who have a case for seeking asylum here. I think there has been an inadequacy in delivering against some of those values, because what we need is calm, compassionate and rational decision-making, but I fear instead that we have had rhetoric over action.

This morning, as I walked my children to school before getting on the train to come to Westminster, I thought, “How dire would my circumstances have to be before I would let my family board an insecure dinghy across the channel?” Whatever challenges we personally have faced or that the communities that we proudly represent in this place have faced over the last months, we might all reasonably conclude that we would have to be completely without hope before it would even occur to us to do such a thing—a point made very eloquently by the hon. Member for Strangford.

However, that is the situation that many of these individuals are in. Over half of refugees globally originate from Syria, Afghanistan or South Sudan—countries that are completely ravaged by violence, chaos and destitution. Those who undertake the crossings understand the danger that they face, so the fact that they none the less make them shows us how desperate they feel their situation is.

I do not presume to understand all the push and pull factors involved as people continue to leave France and seek to come to the UK. However, we see the numbers of those deciding to undertake that journey. Will the Minister say what efforts are being made to understand those decisions, based on an analysis of the experiences of those who have crossed the channel? It is worth remembering that the vast majority of those who flee their homes to reach Europe never reach Calais at all. For example, Germany, France and Italy are all far more common destinations for migrants than the UK, for many reasons.

In our conversations with those working in asylum and immigration, the overwhelming motivation that we hear time and again for wanting to reach the UK is to be reunited with family who are already in the UK. Another common reason is that the person speaks English but not French and so would likely have more success in finding a job and a future in our country than they would elsewhere in Europe. The latter is not an impractical consideration, while the former is hugely understandable.

Jacob Young Portrait Jacob Young
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Given what the hon. Gentleman is saying about language barriers and the like, does he agree that at that point we are no longer discussing an asylum claim and are instead discussing migration and the need to move to England as an economic route, as opposed to for safe refuge?

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn
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There is a lot of conflation and confusion around the various types of immigration, but once a person has embarked upon a route to claim asylum, that is the only one open to them, because, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said, other avenues are no longer open. That is why it is important that a claim be processed promptly through a due legal route.

Also, given the predilection of the hon. Member for Redcar for pointing out Members who are not in this debate, I am keen to enable him to get back and join all my colleagues who are in the other debate on immigration, on the Floor of the House, lest his absence from it should be pointed out.

I have been disappointed by the Government’s response. The Minister knows me well enough to know that I make that point sincerely. Some of these issues need to be addressed. The first is the abolition of the Department for International Development. Arguably, doing that removes the support needed to address some of these issues at their source, and I have not yet heard a valid reason for why the Government have chosen to merge it with the Foreign Office.

We have also had these ludicrous proposals about Ascension Island and Saint Helena—I had to read it twice when I saw it in The Sunday Times, lest it was a reference to St Helens. Either would be preposterous, frankly. That shows a lack of strategy at the heart of Government around how we will get a grip of this issue.

I am fond of the Home Secretary, whom I know well and with whom I share interests in horse-racing and many other things—I am glad that none of my Back-Bench colleagues are here to hear that—but she should reflect on the divisive rhetoric that she has used. I am not sure it does justice to her or ministerial colleagues when she talks about the traffickers, the do-gooders, lefty lawyers and the Labour party as defending the broken system. To group together lawyers and Labour Members with human traffickers is really offensive and insulting. At first, I thought it was inappropriate and a bit beneath the dignity of the office of Home Secretary—one of the great offices of state—but subsequent events have proven it was quite dangerous. It has led to incidents where lawyers have felt their safety threatened. Human rights is not a bad word but something at which this country has been at the cornerstone of, through our role in the Council of Europe, the United Nations and other multilateral organisations throughout the world. We need to be careful about mistaking process issues with ad hominem attacks on individuals.

The frustrating thing is that, in spite of the rhetoric, the Home Office has not even been successful in achieving its commitment to deter these crossings. The closing down of other routes to the UK brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has caused exceptional pressures, but the number of migrants who crossed the channel in small boats in August 2020 was more than four times that of August 2019. It might be worth pointing out to hon. Members who arrived here with great gusto in December 2019 that we have had a Conservative Government, in whole or part, for 10 years, so all the criticisms made about the asylum system are suitably addressed to the Minister rather than the Opposition.

We need a practical, even-handed and realistic response. Many migrants arriving in Calais have legitimate claims for asylum, but they do not have practical or legal means to reach the UK. The strategy of deterring crossings from taking place is not working, so we need a renewed strategy. I am sure the shadow Home Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), would be happy, as he has offered, to discuss the ways in which we can work together to deter crossings and ensure that the system functions adequately for those in need. The strategy must therefore ensure that legal and pragmatic routes continue to function for those with legitimate claims for asylum—that due process.

Back in June, in response to an urgent question on asylum, the Minister told the House that last year the UK made 20,000 grants of protection or asylum. Those are cases in which, against strict criteria, the Government deemed that asylum should be granted in the UK. However, we must ensure that those safe and legal routes do not drive those whom the Government recognise as having a case to be heard into the arms of human traffickers, who profiteer on the back of human suffering. We must protect the route to allow legitimate attempts for those who seek to reunite with family in the UK. That is currently protected in the Dublin regulation, which we will not be part of once we leave the EU. I am therefore keen to hear what the Government propose to do, because if we do not do our bit, as per the Dubs scheme and the amendments being considered on the Floor of the House tonight, to ensure that unaccompanied children in dangerous situations are given safe haven, what kind of country can we claim to be? We should be proud of the role we have played throughout history in providing safe refuge, particularly to children who have fled the most awful horrors of war, famine and poverty.

As I have said, this is a complex situation that demands rational and reasonable solutions. It is a topic that provokes strong reactions among our constituents. We have heard that from Government Members, I have heard it in my constituency and many of my Labour party colleagues feel it too. However, I think most reasonable people would agree that the current situation, whereby migrants are forced to make hazardous trips across the channel to stand any chance of claiming asylum, is untenable. That is why, as I hope I have made clear, Labour is committed to ensuring that we protect and improve the pre-existing legal routes, that we do more to meet our international obligations, that we address illegality and that we command the confidence of the British public.