Monday 19th October 2020

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.

Imran Ahmad Khan Portrait Imran Ahmad Khan
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The hon. Gentleman says that Glasgow takes on asylum seekers. He will be fully aware that, a few years ago, one of my co-religionists was murdered in his shop by somebody of Pakistani origin simply for being an Ahmadi Muslim who wished his Christian neighbours a happy Easter. As somebody who is particularly familiar with the issue of asylum, I also know of abuses of the system and of people who genuinely do need safe avenues for asylum. I can tell the hon. Gentleman categorically that people can apply for asylum in this country through legal mechanisms. Since the 1980s, the Ahmadi community has banned and refused people the right of entering this or any other country through illegal means. That is why we have no—

Imran Ahmad Khan Portrait Imran Ahmad Khan
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Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that evidence shows that people abuse the asylum system? Do we not want those who come here to live and work among us and to become part of the fabric—the silver and golden threads—of the national tapestry to obey the rules? That is one of the characteristics of our country, and if we allow those who are coming in to break the rules from the get-go, are they going to fit?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his second speech. I must say to him—I will be quick, for time purposes—that there is a great Ahmadi community in Glasgow, of which we are very proud. All I can say to him, based on my experience of dealing with asylum claims, is that asylum claim abuses are few and far between compared with those seeking genuine asylum.

Touching on the hon. Gentleman’s point, I would want asylum seekers to be given, after a certain point, the right to work so that they are embedded in the community. That must be looked at. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has a private Member’s Bill on that matter, and there must be serious discussion about allowing asylum seekers the right to work.

I am proud to have an office manager who is a refugee, who had family members murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime. When she came to this country, her father was working. Far from the rhetoric that we heard about the Labour party being left wing, it was the Labour party that took my office manager’s father’s national insurance from him. The then Labour Government changed the law to stop asylum seekers having the right to work. I hope the hon. Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) will seriously consider that in his Bill and consider that asylum seekers, after a certain period, should have the right to work so that they can make the contribution that he wants them to make.

As a party, we believe that the Home Office’s response to the recent channel crossings displays a complete disregard for human suffering that is both shocking and shameful. Responding to the crossings in a dystopian, quasi-militaristic way, with surveillance technology, appointing a clandestine channel threat commander and positing the idea of bringing in the Royal Navy—later condemned by the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organisation for Migration—only reinforces the headlines that liken that failure of leadership to an invasion.

Contrary to the Department’s remarks, the reality is far from being the crisis the newspapers suggest it is. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in the UK said recently:

“The UK is far from the epicentre of the real challenge.”

Asylum claims in the UK—as I have said, and I will say it again—have fallen in 2020, as confirmed by Abi Tierney, the director general of UK Visas and Immigration, to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in September.

The response to the petition describes channel crossings as “unacceptable behaviour”. The Department seems unable to understand—or perhaps fails to mention—that it has already closed and is closing more safe legal routes for refugees to reach the United Kingdom. That is leaving extremely vulnerable individuals who are often fleeing unimaginable conditions, as the hon. Member for Strangford rightly pointed out, with little choice but to place their fate in the hands of criminal gangs. Furthermore, a report last year by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which the Home Secretary was a member at the time, said:

“In the absence of robust and accessible legal routes for seeking asylum in the UK, those with a claim are left with little choice but to make dangerous journeys by land and sea.”

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I assume the Minister is seeking to make an intervention, because there was a lot of noise there as I was making those remarks. I am happy to give way to him.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He said that migrants are compelled to cross the English channel to claim asylum. I respectfully point out that they are in France, typically northern France. France is a civilised and safe country with a well-functioning asylum system, and should anyone in northern France feel they need to claim asylum, they are perfectly able to do so there. They do not need to make one of those dangerous crossings.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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That may very well be the Minister’s view. He will have an opportunity to say that, and I will perhaps make an intervention—[Interruption.] The Minister is harrumphing from a sedentary position. I am concerned for his welfare. He seems rather excitable, Sir David. Perhaps you can pass him a note and have a word just to calm him down. Thank you, Sir David.

The staggering leaked UK Government documents only prove that the Tory hostile environment towards immigration and immigrants is still alive and kicking. In response to the petition, the Home Office said:

“The UK has long been a sanctuary for those in need of international protection”.

Leaked documents provided evidence that the Home Office was considering wave machines to deter boats, nets to clog boats’ propellers and the transportation of asylum seekers more than 4,000 miles away to Ascension Island for processing. Those are preposterous suggestions and show how far the Government will go to drive home and engender the Brexit ideology that has already poisoned some of the political discourse in this country.

The Refugees Council policy manager, Judith Dennis, said that the UK must treat refugees and asylum seekers with dignity. Instead, those ridiculous proposals set an unsettling precedent, firing the starting gun of a race to the bottom in terms of treating refugees and asylum seekers with any humanity and compassion.

I believe that the asylum system must be fair and compassionate, but it must also be professional. I hope the Minister answers the question for which I have been trying to seek debates—unfortunately, I seem to be missing out on the ballots for either Westminster Hall or an Adjournment debate—about why a private company has been called in to process asylum claim interviews in the last couple of weeks. In secret, with no statement, either written or verbal, provided to hon. Members, a private company has been called in by the Home Office to carry out asylum claim interviews.

Is it Serco? It would not surprise us, let us be honest, if it was Serco, a company that has certainly been mentioned as carrying out these asylum claim interviews. What training and expertise does it have to carry them out? It really is, I suggest, quite ludicrous that a private company, be it Serco or any other, is being asked to carry out a quasi-legal process, which asylum claim interviews should be, under the aegis of a pilot programme. I hope the Minister will address the concerns that I and many Members of the House have on that issue.

I am conscious of time, and I want to allow the two other Front Benchers to speak. We keep being told that the asylum system is broken, yet the Government have had 10 years—over a decade. Does that mean that they have broken the system, and what are they going to do to fix it? I respectfully disagree with those who have signed the petition, and with all due respect to the hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken, I disagree with most of their remarks as well.

--- Later in debate ---
Chris Philp Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Chris Philp)
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It is a great pleasure to serve, once again, under your chairmanship, Sir David, which is, as the shadow Minister said, always infallible. I thank the shadow Minister for his balanced remarks in summing up. It is fair to say no one would ever accuse him of being a Trotskyite, sadly something that one cannot say about every Member of his parliamentary party.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on securing the debate and presenting it on behalf of more than 100,000 petitioners, a majority of whom, we discovered, come from Redcar and Cleveland. My hon. Friend laid out a compelling, passionate and well-articulated description of why illegal immigration is a huge problem for our country. It undermines the rule of law, it undermines legal and safe routes, and it renders purposeless the routes that we, as a Parliament, have developed to decide who comes into the country and who does not. All those are undermined.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) powerfully and passionately pointed out that immigration can be an enormous force for good, when done within the rule of law. His own family story, which he set out, is a moving and powerful illustration of the enormous contribution that legal migration can make to our society, strengthening and contributing to it, as his father and his whole family have done. Our country is better, stronger and richer, in every sense, for the contribution made by my hon. Friend’s family and millions like them, who have made their home here legally.

Illegal migration undermines all of that. It undermines public confidence in the system, it puts immigration in a negative rather than positive light, and it makes it much harder to allow legal immigration if the whole system is undermined. In all honesty, we must admit that the small-boats crisis that has unfolded this summer is a sad and appalling example of illegal immigration undermining confidence in our system. The Government find it completely unacceptable and we are determined to stop it. We make no apology at all for saying that.

Illegal immigration is unacceptable for three reasons: it is dangerous, illegal and unnecessary. That it is dangerous is powerfully demonstrated by the tragic death earlier today, or yesterday, of a man believed to be aged between 20 and 40, and the sad death a few weeks ago of a Sudanese gentlemen aged 26. Those sad deaths in the channel demonstrate how dangerous the crossings are. We have a moral and a compassionate duty to prevent those crossings.

Secondly, these crossings are illegal. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) suggested the contrary, but let me say clearly that it is illegal to enter the country without leave under section 24(1)(a) of the Immigration Act 1971. The hon. Gentleman referred to provisions in article 31 of the refugee convention that say an entry to a country for the purposes of claiming asylum should not be a criminalised if someone has come “directly” from a dangerous territory. I submit that France is not a dangerous territory, and therefore the prohibition in article 31 of the refugee convention 1951, renewed by the 1967 protocol, does not apply. France is not dangerous and these crossings are categorically illegal.

They are not only dangerous and illegal, but unnecessary. Anyone wishing to claim asylum, or genuinely wishing to seek protection, can do so in one of the safe countries previously passed through. Clearly, there is France—everybody who crosses on a small boat has been in France—and typically people will have travelled through other countries, often including Germany, Italy, Spain and others. There will have been ample opportunities to claim asylum and protection previously. There may be reasons why people might prefer to claim asylum in the United Kingdom, such as the language, but those are not reasons of protection. Those are choices rather than a necessity. We should be clear: these journeys are not necessary for the purpose of securing protection.

I will come to the compassionate and safe routes in a moment. Before I do, let me briefly talk about some of the things that we are doing to prevent these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings. We are working with our colleagues in France on developing ever-increasing tactics to try to prevent the crossings. The French have been deploying larger numbers of gendarmes, police aux frontiers, brigades mobiles de recherche and others in northern France, and that is yielding fruit. This weekend, large numbers of interceptions have been made to prevent embarkations. On Saturday, just two days ago, the French police intercepted 220 people who were attempting a crossing. Yesterday, on Sunday, the French authorities intercepted 211 people. Only 62 got across, so the French successfully intercepted about 70% to 80% of the people who attempted a crossing. I pay tribute to them for the law enforcement work that they have been doing.

We have appointed a clandestine channel threat commander to co-ordinate United Kingdom activities—Dan O’Mahoney, a former Royal Marine, entered his post in August—and we are doing huge amounts of law enforcement work. We have so far this year made 89 arrests of people who committed offences in that regard, and we have disrupted 24 organised immigration crime groups that have been facilitating cross-channel traffic. A huge amount of work has been going on, and let me say that we intend to intensify and increase that activity. We intend to legislate next year to tighten up our system, but the legislation will have two elements to it. It will be firm, because it will take tough action against illegal immigration, but it will also be fair, in the sense that it will provide safe legal routes for genuine refugees.

Let me say a few words about the work that the United Kingdom has done so far on those safe legal routes. Since 2015, we have run a resettlement programme whereby we have taken people from conflict areas—for example, around Syria—and brought them directly to the United Kingdom. Rather than seeing people come from France, Italy or Greece, which are safe European countries—that is what the Dubs amendment did, by the way—we have gone directly to conflict zones, where people are in genuine danger, and brought them here. In that five-year period, 25,000 people have been brought directly to the United Kingdom. Over the five years, our resettlement programme is larger than any other European country’s resettlement programme.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised some points about that. I must say that I agree with him, in the sense that the resettlement programme focused, as Members will understand, largely on people of Syrian nationality. It did not reflect the pre-conflict population of Syria, because Christians were severely underrepresented. The hon. Member for Strangford and I led a debate back in July 2019 on the persecution that Christians suffer around the world. Indeed, Christians are the most persecuted group of any, globally, and I would like to see our future resettlement activity better reflect the persecution that Christians suffer around the world.

We offer many other legal and safe routes. We offer family reunion routes, which I think the hon. Member for Glasgow South West referred to. Even as we most likely leave the Dublin regulations in two and half months, the United Kingdom’s immigration rules provide for the family reunion of children joining their parents and, where compassionate and compelling circumstances exist and where the child’s best interest is served, reunion with aunts, uncles, grandparents and siblings. That safe and legal family reunion route does exist, can be used and is used.

Last year, we received roughly 3,700 applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in this country. We are currently looking after more than 5,000 UASCs. Both those numbers are higher than the equivalent figures for any other European country, including Greece. People talk about the Dubs amendment and bringing UASCs from Italy to the UK, but we already look after more UASCs than either Italy or Greece does. We do it very well—we look after them extremely well.

The shadow Minister mentioned overseas aid. We have not abolished overseas aid; we have merged it with the Foreign Office so that better co-ordination is possible. Since he mentions overseas aid, it is worth putting on record that we are the only G8 country to meet 0.7% of gross national income as spending on overseas aid. That amounted last year to some £14 billion. Not only do we have the top direct resettlement numbers of any European country and not only do we welcome more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children than any other European country; we are also the only European country to meet that 0.7% of GNI target. So anyone who suggests that the United Kingdom is not a generous and welcoming country is clearly not apprised of those facts.

However, with the compassion and fairness for which this country is famous, and which it will continue to demonstrate, comes an obligation to be firm on illegal immigration, for the reasons that my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich, for Wakefield, for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Redcar (Jacob Young) outlined so persuasively. I am afraid there is a lot more work to do, because our system is in many respects broken. It is possible for people who should not be in this country, including dangerous foreign national offenders, to submit very late claims that are essentially vexatious, with the purpose of preventing their removal. I have become painfully aware in my six months, so far, as one of the two Immigration Ministers, of a number of cases in which very dangerous foreign national offenders have repeatedly—five, six or seven times—over a number of years, at the last minute before the moment of removal or deportation, lodged claims that are subsequently found by the court to be wholly without merit. None the less they succeeded in frustrating the removal. We need to legislate to prevent that kind of abuse, because it brings our system into disrepute.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich mentioned a recent flight that was due to return to Spain, as required by the Dublin regulation—the European Union’s own regulation—people who had tried to claim asylum here having claimed asylum there previously, when a slew of last-minute legal claims, many of which subsequently proved to be without merit, caused the flight to be cancelled. Such abuse of the legal process—and I will be direct; it is, frankly, abuse—is not something that the Government are prepared to countenance any more. Therefore we shall legislate next year to fix that problem and other problems.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I want to take the Minister back to the subject of foreign nationals—particularly the criminal aspect of the matter. He makes a fair point, but does he agree that it is not the fault of so-called do-gooders and lawyers? Does he agree that the Government need to roll back on the rhetoric that we have heard from them against lawyers who represent asylum seekers?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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Lawyers are clearly entitled—indeed, obliged—to represent their clients to the best of their ability, but there have been examples, including what was reported by The Times last week, of immigration lawyers encouraging their clients to make vexatious claims. In the example reported by The Times last week the Solicitors Regulation Authority quite properly took disciplinary action against those solicitors. We sometimes hear lawyers talking about pursuing politics through the courts, and that is not helpful.

Of course I accept that barristers, solicitors and other representatives are obliged and entitled to represent their clients to the best of their ability within the law, but last-minute meritless claims that are designed to frustrate the process do not help the system at all, and we need to put things on a better legislative footing to prevent the legal abuse that there has been. However, I of course do not dispute, as I have said, the right of lawyers to represent their clients to the best of their ability. Indeed, they are obliged to do so.

I do not wish to detain Members longer, given that the main event is happening on the Floor of the House as we speak. Let me reiterate that the Government are determined to protect our borders, determined to end these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings, and determined to end illegal immigration, but at the same time we are determined to ensure that we are fair and compassionate, and that those who genuinely need our protection around the world receive it.