Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab)
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to bring this issue to the House.
Like an immigrants, my constituent Alberta came to this country with the dream of a better life. Hers was to serve the NHS as a midwife. Aged 19, she was studying health and social care at college. Life was going well—so well, in fact, that she used her free time to help others as a mentor for young children at her local primary school. Arriving in Tottenham from Ghana in 2012, she was a shining example of what migrants contribute to the United Kingdom.
Alberta was, and still is, a proud and intelligent young woman with dreams, the capacity for hard work and the compulsion to help others on her way up. But one June morning last year, everything changed for Alberta. It was a day that she would later describe to me as one of the worst in her life. Showering to get ready for college, she heard a loud knock at the door. Quickly, she began to get dressed, but she was too slow. When five immigration officers burst open the front door, she was still half naked. Loudly, they ordered Alberta to come out of the bathroom. The indignity of her situation grew as, in her own words, she felt a “spontaneous gush of blood” between her legs; the terror caused her period to come early. Mortified, she explained to the officers that her five-year immigration permit was still valid. They did not listen. Instead, they arrested her and locked her in the back of their van, where she remembers feeling “like a caged animal.”
Alberta was taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre, imprisoned despite committing no crime. Yarl’s Wood, of course, is essentially a prison. Victims of rape, torture and trafficking are held inside. Almost half the women detained in Yarl’s Wood have experienced suicidal thoughts. In 2015, the chief inspector of prisons described Yarl’s Wood as a “place of national concern”. After more than three weeks of misery and detention, the Home Office released Alberta, admitting that it had acted on incorrect information. But this was not the end of her suffering at the hands of immigration control.
While detained in Yarl’s Wood, Alberta missed critical deadlines and her grades dropped rapidly. With this handicap, her performance in college began to decline. To this day, bi-weekly visits to the immigration reporting centre force Alberta to revisit her trauma. For days ahead of these visits, she struggles to eat, has problems sleeping and breaks down in tears. Because of the Home Office’s gross errors, her dream of becoming a midwife is now uncertain. Alberta’s story is one of mistreatment, cruelty and inhumanity, but sadly it is not unique. So many others echo these horrors when they recount their experiences of living under immigration control.
Each year, the Government pay out more than £4 million to people as compensation for having been detained unlawfully. Half those detained between 2013 and 2018 were ultimately released back into their community. They were therefore people the state deemed had the right to remain. Alberta’s story illustrates a broken immigration system that treats humans without dignity—a system that stains the fundamental principles of our legal system and our state.
Over the past year, attention has been drawn to the Government’s hostile environment. The Windrush scandal revealed that thousands of British citizens were incorrectly deported, detained, made jobless, left without housing and healthcare, split from their families, left destitute and treated like strangers in their homes. But Windrush is not an isolated mistake. The Home Office has been broken by a public discourse that has got out of control—a xenophobic rhetoric that has become accepted by too many in this House, with the UKIP-ification of our newspapers, of our television and of the Government themselves.
The United Kingdom has built a proud reputation for liberalism and fairness. As a member of the United Nations Security Council, we have been a world leader in the spread of human rights and justice, but our treatment of immigrants leaves us no better than the human rights abusers. It leaves our moral authority, frankly, in the gutter. Government-condoned prejudice permeates every one of an immigrant’s first encounters with the state. The Home Office imprisons tens of thousands of people every year, including survivors of torture, trafficking and rape, with no time limit. We are the only EU country that allows the indefinite detention of migrants.
But it is not only this that singles Britain out. We have one of the slowest and least efficient immigration processes in the developed world. In France, the average stay for detained migrants is just one month. In the United Kingdom, the average stay in a detention centre is 19 months—yes, 19, more than double the EU average. Detention has the potential to be harmful and unlawful from the very first day to the very last. Why has detention become the default, and why are alternatives never used? Bail with reporting restrictions and electronic monitoring should surely be considered before we lock migrants up and throw away the keys.
The brutal treatment of immigrants such as Alberta not only denies them their freedom; it can leave emotional scars that torment them for the rest of their lives. In a fair society, only a court should have the power to detain. In a fair society, detention is not the default response—it is the last resort. In every other sphere of British life, innocence is presumed while guilt must be proven, but the legal basis of our immigration system is upside down. The burden of proof is the wrong way round. Why are people imprisoned by the Home Office without the assessment of any judge or jury? Instead of forcing detainees to demonstrate why they should be released, why does the Home Office not have to demonstrate why they must be detained?
Access to justice is another principle that runs across every aspect of UK law. It allows people to have their voice heard, to exercise their rights, to challenge discrimination and to hold decision makers accountable. But access to justice is impossible without legal representation. So why is legal representation impossible to access for so many under immigration control? In the UN, we prescribe these standards internationally, but on our own soil, more than half the people in detention are denied access to a lawyer. These legal aid deserts have grown due to systematic cuts to legal aid. There has been a 56% fall in the total number of legal aid providers for asylum seekers since 2005. This lack of legal representation means that vulnerable people are sent back to their country of origin when they should have been granted the right to remain.
As champions of human rights and the rule of law, MPs in this House must ask ourselves some tough questions. How can we deport migrants without granting them legal representation? How can we split migrants from their children and partners without giving them access to justice? How can we pull migrants away from their homes and livelihoods without respecting our own rule of law?
Our current system is not only cruel, unjustifiable and damaging to the lives of detainees; it is a great burden on the British taxpayer. The country’s detention estate is one of the largest in Europe, costing more than £160 million a year. The average cost of detaining one person in this system is about £36,000—greater than the fees of Eton, Harrow or any of the country’s poshest boarding schools. What justifies this enormous waste of money? What justifies a system that treats the vulnerable as criminals and expects taxpayers to foot the bill?
For individuals, too, the cost of being trapped under immigration control continues to spiral. The Home Office is making up to 800% profit on applications and putting profit before principles, even when it means ruining people’s lives. As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) said in Westminster Hall on Tuesday, the fees for children under immigration control in this country are a particular disgrace. It is a shame on our nation that it is 22 times more expensive for a child to become a citizen in this country than in Germany. The Minister for Immigration was responding in that debate, as she is today. I understand her claim that the Government need to “balance the books”, but when the Government are intent on keeping taxes low for the richest in society, can flagrant profiteering off the most vulnerable ever be justified?
Much of the blame for the state of the immigration system in this country lies with this Government and this Prime Minister, who single-handedly coined the “hostile environment” policy. However, any constructive debate on immigration will recognise that no party—and that absolutely includes my own—has been innocent. The Labour party should also be ashamed of its treatment of people under immigration control during its three terms in power. With the mutual recognition of past failures, we can begin a cross-party response to heal these wounds, but to do so, we must first clean up the injuries of the past.
The Home Office’s war against undocumented immigration has built a shadow economy fuelled by workplace exploitation, human trafficking, drugs and other crime. Some 600,000 people live illegally in the UK, and they will remain here regardless of their legal status. The question is whether to keep them illegal, fuelling crime and the shadow economy, or to regularise their status, allowing them to pay income tax and national insurance, live safely and become respected members of society. I support the latter option as the first step in cleaning up the Home Office failures of the past. I urge those who think that proposal too radical or perhaps too left-wing to consider the comments of my unlikely ally on this issue, the former Foreign Secretary. In the wake of Windrush, even the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) called for the very same measure. A one-off immigration amnesty would allow this country to start afresh and to create a new system that respects migrants’ rights and their contribution, while apologising for the mistakes of the past.
Today, we must recognise that this is a crucial turning point in British history. The Government’s lurch to the hard right and their decision to leave the European Union leaves Britain alone, isolated and on track for decline. If the Government continue to pursue Brexit, as they are minded to do, they must do so while learning the lessons of the past, not by compounding them. The opportunity to reshape our immigration system that comes with it must reflect back on the hostile environment that has routinely abused human rights and brought shame on our nation.
If we are to build a truly open, global Britain that engages with the world, as the last debate demonstrated, redrawing our immigration policy is a vital part of that. We must continue to attract the talent and hard work of immigrants such as Alberta. Otherwise, our public services, our schools, our NHS and our businesses will be starved of workers and will further decline. We must look forward to a future with a just immigration policy, motivated by compassion, fairness and the rule of law—an immigration system where migrants are treated like human beings, not criminals.
When we discuss in this House the trade deals that we will strike with the Chinese and the Indians, let us be honest: the first thing those nations will ask for is the immigration of their citizens to this country. Because of the position this country finds itself in, with no significant trade deals with the rest of the world, we will grant them that right. For all those reasons, it is time to reform cross-party our response to those controlled by immigration in this country.