Immigration Debate

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Department: Home Office
Monday 19th October 2020

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jacob Young Portrait Jacob Young (Redcar) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for presenting the debate on what is a pressing issue, as underlined by the significant support for the petition.

Many from my own constituency of Redcar and Cleveland are concerned by the daily arrival of boats on our shores bringing more and more illegal immigrants to this country via an unsafe and unlawful route. When I raised the issue in my local newspapers and local media, I was lambasted by local Labour politicians for commenting on issues 300 miles from the sandy shores of Redcar and Marske. However, the fact that 311 of my constituents have signed this petition—more than anyone else speaking in this debate—shows the strength of feeling. It was the No. 1 issue in my inbox over the summer, so I will not take any lectures from the Labour party—particularly given that its Members have not even attended this debate—for speaking up for my constituents. Perhaps their silence on the issue is the reason why Redcar elected its first ever Tory MP in December.

The safest, most humane and most compassionate thing we can do for any person wanting to cross the channel illegally is to stop them getting in the boat. It cannot be right that vulnerable people are charged thousands of pounds to be loaded, without lifejackets and with 40 others, into a dinghy meant for 20 people, and then pushed into the open sea in the hope that they will reach Britain. Two people have died this year attempting these crossings, and it is thanks to our coastguard, lifeboats, the Royal Navy and UK Border Force that many more have not faced the same fate. Despite our best efforts to make the route unviable—I commend the actions of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Minister, who has graciously spoken with me about this issue a number of times—these arrivals have rapidly increased, with more than 7,000 this year. Urgent measures are needed to stop the flow. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Natalie Elphicke), who could not be here today, but who has worked incredibly hard alongside the Home Office. I commend her for that.

It is not acceptable for it to be so easy for criminal gangs to profit from other people’s desperation and prevent those genuinely fleeing persecution from finding safe refuge. Our asylum system is clogged and overwhelmed with requests. While applicants wait for an outcome, we should bear in mind that, regardless of the legitimacy of their claim, they are, rightly, housed and fed—but at the expense of the taxpayer.

No one is arguing that legitimate and genuine asylum seekers should not be able to find safe refuge in the UK. We are a country with a proud record of providing asylum to those seeking safety from war zones and persecution. But right now we are simply failing to do so. Our asylum system has been hijacked by individuals who deliberately intend to abuse our generosity. This needs to end. It is unacceptable to genuine asylum seekers and to our constituents, including mine in Redcar and Cleveland, who are paying their taxes and seeing that squandered on false asylum claims. People who are genuinely seeking a safe refuge could and should claim asylum in the first country they reach. Before crossing the channel, many will have already registered as an asylum seeker in another EU country and will travel through France and various other countries to get to our shores. I believe that the route will continually be abused until we make it unviable for those who seek to abuse it.

To that end, I believe that our approach should be twofold. First, we need properly to resource the National Crime Agency, UK Border Force and the police to root out the people smugglers and organised crime gangs that perpetuate this form of illegal immigration. Secondly, we should adopt an Australian-style approach to illegal immigration, whereby we intercept a vessel, ensure the safety of its passengers and then return it to the shores from which it left. Only by doing that will we prove to those seeking to cross to the UK that the route is unviable and, in turn, starve the people smugglers of their funds from that abusive practice.

I know that many organisations are already doing an incredible job in cracking down on the criminal gangs—those organisation are working alongside the French authorities—and I welcome the arrests that the Minister has previously announced from the Dispatch Box. But may I urge Ministers to go further and do everything they can to ensure that the French authorities are stopping people attempting to make the crossing in the first place? May I also urge them to push for joint operations to intercept boats at sea and ensure that they are returned safely?

We must take this problem seriously and ensure that anyone who breaks the law faces the full consequence, or we risk failing those who genuinely need our help. I want to finish as I started, by saying that the safest, most humane and most compassionate thing that we can do for any person wanting to cross the channel illegally is to stop them getting in the boat.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I very much enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and I agreed with most of it, apart from his final paragraph, but I have to say that that is where the consensus ends in this debate—and it is a debate. I certainly was struck by the fact that a number of contributions talked about illegal immigration, but not one Member actually articulated what that means and gave their definition of illegal immigration, so let us move on to the facts, rather than the rhetoric.

The facts are these. The number of people claiming asylum substantially reduced in 2020. This year, there has been a 40% drop, according to the Government’s own statistics. It is the route that has changed. It is because other routes are no longer available that there are the crossings that we are discussing.

It is not illegal to enter the UK for the purpose of making an asylum claim, and the most recent evidence set out by the Home Office’s clandestine channel threat commander suggests that 100% of the people crossing the English channel in small boats are doing so to claim asylum. That was clear evidence that was given by the commander to the Home Affairs Committee. They are doing so to seek international protection. None is trying to enter the country unobserved or for criminal reasons. That was the evidence that was presented. And as I said, there has been a 40% drop, according to the immigration statistics published in August of this year, and that is compared with the last quarter of 2019.

Jacob Young Portrait Jacob Young
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I accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument that the route has changed—it has indeed—but does he not see that the route is now much more unsafe? Any other route by which an asylum claim can be made is intrinsically safer than going out to sea in a dinghy that is not meant for the number of people whom it is carrying.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The UK Government have a responsibility to provide safe legal routes for people claiming asylum. I will come to that later in my contribution.

What is the legal position for people seeking asylum in the UK after arriving from France? Those arriving in the UK and making a claim for asylum are subject to international refugee law, and their rights are not affected by the mode of arrival or means of entry. The UK is a signatory to the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and the 1967 protocol.

How does the legal system intervene to help people who are being removed? I was staggered to hear that the legal profession in the UK has been overrun by these Trotskyite and Marxist lawyers who are stopping people being deported. What absolute, utter nonsense. That is certainly not the case. I will explain, for those watching this debate, how the legal system actually stops people being removed, because the claim that the legal system sometimes unfairly prevents people from being removed is nonsense and misrepresents how our asylum and human rights law functions and its purpose

There are established processes for the removal of people in certain circumstances where their asylum claim has been fully heard by the UK or should be held elsewhere. I have no problem with that. I have seen individuals come to my office who have had to be deported because of the way in which they went through the system. Some of that included criminal activity. I have no problem with that at all. However, removals are stopped for a wide range of reasons, such as on health grounds, concerns about trafficking, or appeals relating to protecting the rights of individuals. Where those removals are halted, it is because the Home Office and the Home Secretary are not adhering to the law.

Removals cannot be prevented by lawyers themselves. We have heard in this debate that it is the lawyers who are stopping deportations. That is nonsense. The legal assistance is provided to ensure that the law is upheld and, if necessary, a court of law determines whether a removal is stopped. Such processes have to be undertaken quickly, as applicants will not usually be given much notice of removal proceedings. That is a fact, as my constituency casework shows, given that Glasgow is the only place in Scotland that takes on asylum seekers.

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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.