Minors Entering the UK: 1948 to 1971 Debate

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Department: Home Office

Minors Entering the UK: 1948 to 1971

Stuart C McDonald Excerpts
Monday 30th April 2018

(6 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I, too, thank the petitioner and the signatories for bringing the debate before the House today, the Petitions Committee for scheduling the debate, and the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for ably introducing it. We have had lots of powerful and thoughtful speeches.

The arrival of 492 passengers onboard the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in June 1948 was a pivotal and iconic moment in British history. The pictures and TV footage from the time, which can still be seen on the internet, show people’s faces brimming with optimism. These people were legally full citizens of Britain for the first time, thanks to the British Nationality Act 1948, which was aimed at preserving a united Commonwealth.

Despite a labour shortage, which one Government survey estimated at between 600,000 and 1.3 million people, it is fair to say, as hon. Members have pointed out, that the arrival of the first of the Windrush generation was initially neither welcome nor encouraged. An emergency meeting of the Cabinet Economic Policy Committee was called to discuss the situation, and urgent reports sought the ringleaders of the so-called incursion. The Minister of Labour had to reassure MPs that

“no encouragement will be given to others to follow their example.”—[Official Report, 8 June 1948; Vol. 451, c. 1851.]

As many hon. Members—especially the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)—have pointed out, despite that less than enthusiastic initial welcome, that generation went on to make a massive contribution to rebuilding the country after the war, enriching it both economically and culturally. If there is one tiny silver lining in this disastrous episode, it is that a light has been cast once again on their extraordinary role in our history. I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to them and thanking them for that.

Fast-forward seven decades, and that tiny silver lining will be of scant comfort to those who have been treated so appallingly by the Home Office. This appalling episode can and should be seen as a not just predictable but inevitable consequence of the UK Government’s migration policy. It is not simply a matter of an administrative cock-up. The truth is that the Home Office and the Prime Minister entirely neglected those Commonwealth citizens when they went about ramping up the hostile environment and demanding checks on status at every turn. It seems that little thought was given to the fact that it would often be close to impossible for many Windrush children and others to prove their legal situation. Over time, they were dismissed from jobs they had done for years, they struggled to access NHS treatment and services, and they even faced detention and removal, as we have heard from hon. Members today. Some who went abroad were not allowed to return.

The Home Office knew that this sort of scandal could happen. It is not just that MPs raised individual cases with it: non-governmental organisations, including the outstanding Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, warned it, the high commissioners representing Caribbean countries raised concerns, and, later, its own equality impact assessment for the Immigration Act 2016 flagged up precisely what would happen. It is almost as if the implications for the Windrush generation were seen as little more than unfortunate—they did not require action, never mind the urgent action that was desperately needed.

Quite rightly, there is a widespread public outcry, as the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) described. Parliament is rightly angry, and hon. Members have asked a number of important questions. Given that confidence in the Home Office has been utterly shattered, surely the Government must now provide legal aid for those who believe they may be required to contact the Home Office helpline. Otherwise, many will simply not do so.

Will the Minister discuss with the Ministry of Justice the absolute necessity of providing legal aid? Will she assure us that no one from the Windrush generation is in detention or being asked to report? As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) asked, will she make it absolutely clear that information from the hotline will not be passed on and used in enforcement action? How broad is the Home Office search for others who have been wrongly detained and removed or not allowed re-entry? What standard of proof does the Home Office require for citizenship or settled status here? What rights will there be to challenge negative Home Office decisions, and what will the compensation scheme look like? Can we have an absolute assurance that Home Office staff are not under pressure to remove or deport individuals, and that there is not a target that incentivises them to ignore or not explore the possible right to be in this country? All those questions require an answer.

A number of hon. Members have rightly said that we have to see this scandal in a broader context, because it is just the tip of the iceberg. The Windrush children are just one of several groups of utterly innocent people who have been treated almost as if they are expendable, while the Prime Minister relentlessly pursues her now widely ridiculed and utterly bogus net migration target. Her policies mean that tens of thousands of children across the UK have been separated from a parent living abroad. Even more couples are kept apart by some of the most draconian, restrictive family migration rules in the world.

The checks that the Prime Minister imposed on landlords in England have pushed landlords and landladies into the role of immigration officers, with the result that the fear of getting it wrong has driven discrimination against prospective tenants who look foreign or have a foreign-sounding name. Despite the fact that the Home Office has been regularly criticised for poor decision making, the Prime Minister has removed in-country rights of appeal, which means that folk have to leave their jobs and families for months on end—sometimes longer—to try somehow to overturn those decisions from abroad. Thousands of innocent students have been arrested and deported, without even getting to see the evidence that the Home Office used to decide their guilt, never mind having the chance to challenge it in a tribunal. At the same time, the Home Office has commissioned a review of the complexity of its immigration rules, yet it insists that they are not complex enough to justify legal aid in England and Wales. Fees for citizenship and passport applications have soared. The list of injustices goes on and on.

Two weeks ago, the then Home Secretary said she was concerned that the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual. She is right, but that is the fault of Ministers, including the Prime Minister, who have created policies and strategies that forget the individuals and families whose lives are being destroyed. It is the “computer says no” approach, as the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) aptly described it.

All the while, there is not a shred of evidence that any of this has achieved anything other than division and messed-up lives. Since the Immigration Act 2014 came into force, voluntary returns have actually gone down. Evidence that the Home Affairs Committee received suggests that the hostile environment sometimes actually makes it harder, rather than easier, to enforce immigration rules, because it drives folk into the black private rented market and the black employment market.

There has been some talk today about illegal migrants, as if they are one body of very wicked and evil people whose removal we should celebrate, but they include husbands and wives unable to secure status because of the very strict immigration rules that I described. We heard today that the Home Office is trying to remove somebody who served in Afghanistan—an Afghan national who worked alongside our forces in that country. He is an illegal migrant, too. There are lots of people who came here as children who did not understand that they needed to regularise their status here, and could not even afford to do so. I will come back to that point in a moment.

Before we can go around talking about a hostile environment, we need a system that gets decisions right, that commands public confidence, that has appropriate oversight and systems of appeal, and that has a clear and simple way to determine who is here lawfully and who is not. None of that remotely exists at the moment, so the hostile environment must be reined in urgently. It is essential that MPs from across the House start standing up to the hostile environment and finally put the notorious net migration target out of its miserable existence.

The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) rightly asked what can be done. An early test for Parliament will be the Data Protection Bill and the Home Office’s attempt to help itself to a massive immigration exemption. There is absolutely no doubt that stripping people of their right to know what data the Home Office has about them, and to challenge inaccuracies, will create further burning injustices. As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East pointed out, we need to prevent a repeat of the Windrush fiasco.

What work has been done to identify other groups—Commonwealth citizens or otherwise—who may be at risk? Let me suggest two things the Government can do. First, tens of thousands of children who were either born in the UK or have lived most of their lives here are undocumented. They are entitled by law to British citizenship if they register, but if they cannot register and become citizens, they face exactly the same issues as the Windrush generation. I cannot see how the Home Office can justify charging more than £1,000 for the privilege of registration. Those children are entitled to British citizenship, and they should not be charged to exercise their rights in this country, any more than the Windrush generation should. That must be put right immediately.

Most obviously and urgently, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) said, we must look after the 3 million and more EU nationals in the UK. The Government must urgently update us about their progress in establishing a system for seeking settled status. Regardless of how successful that system eventually proves to be, it is very hard to see how, at the end of the grace period, we can avoid there being tens of thousands—probably hundreds of thousands —of people who have not successfully navigated the system to secure a document proving their status. If that happens, it will be Windrush on an even more desperate scale.

Those are the immediate priorities. If Parliament is seriously angry about the hostile environment, it will get down to the business of a root-and-branch review of the Immigration Act 2014 and the Immigration Act 2016. We must indeed start putting in place a system that properly respects people, their human rights and the rule of law. The one we have now too often fails to do so. Windrush is an awful and extreme example, but it is far from the only one.