Immigration Rules and Border Security Debate

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Tom Pursglove

Main Page: Tom Pursglove (Conservative - Corby)

Immigration Rules and Border Security

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Tuesday 20th February 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Yvette Cooper Portrait Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on changes to UK immigration rules and the security of the UK’s borders.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Legal Migration and the Border (Tom Pursglove)
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The security of the UK border is a top priority for me, the Home Secretary and the Home Office. Everything we do in this area is designed to reduce risks to this country and its citizens. Border Force performs checks on 100% of scheduled passengers arriving in the UK and risk-based intelligence-led checks on general aviation. It is deeply disturbing that information that has no basis in fact was leaked by the independent chief inspector to a national newspaper before the Home Office had the chance to respond. We are urgently investigating this breach of confidential information in full in the normal way.

Moving to yesterday’s changes to the immigration rules, since the launch of our Ukraine schemes the UK has offered or extended sanctuary to more than 280,000 Ukrainians, thanks to the immense generosity of the British public. I know that colleagues across the House are grateful for all the work that has been going on in communities to facilitate that support. Almost two years on from the start of the conflict, the UK Government’s commitment to the Ukrainian cause remains undimmed. It is right that we continue to adapt and develop our visa routes to ensure that they keep pace with the rapidly shifting situation in Ukraine. We must ensure that they remain as efficient and sustainable as possible, while providing stability for those we have welcomed to the UK and those who still need our sanctuary. Ukrainian nationals who may have previously been eligible to apply to come to the UK under the Ukraine family scheme will remain eligible to apply for the Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme.

Separately, the Government remain wholeheartedly committed to reducing levels of legal migration. Measures to curb immigration abuse and further reduce net migration are being implemented, ranging from salary increases for work and family visas to reforming the shortage occupation list, removing the right for overseas care workers to bring dependants, and requiring care providers to be registered with the Care Quality Commission before hiring overseas carers. The rule changes outlined yesterday, which relate to the care sector, pave the way for those measures to take effect.

Yvette Cooper Portrait Yvette Cooper
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It has been reported today that hundreds of high-risk private flights have landed in the UK without proper border security checks having been done. If the Minister disputes the figures, will he tell us the true ones now? Were all the high-risk private flights checked or not?

Ministers have been warned repeatedly about border security risks on private flights. The Prime Minister may think it is just all his own mates, but there are risks from organised crime, money laundering, drugs and weapons smuggling, trafficking, and even terrorism. There has been a 75% drop in class A drugs border seizures. There has been a 39% drop in firearms seizures. Criminal gangs are still organising dangerous boat crossings. There have also been repeated failures in security checks at Western Jet Foil; a 30% drop in foreign national offender removals; a 50% drop in failed asylum seeker removals; and new revelations of visa failures in the Home Office, which issued 275 visas to a care home that did not even exist.

Instead of getting a grip, what is the Minister’s response? It is just to sack the border inspector and sit on his reports, as well as changing the rules to stop Ukrainian family members from coming here. What message of solidarity does that send to a country we are supposed to be supporting in the face of Russian aggression?

Will the Minister now publish all the outstanding inspector’s reports? Is it true that no inspector will be in place for the next six months? Will he tell us the key border security facts? Have all high-risk private flights been met and checked in the last year? Home Office Ministers promised me in this Chamber that that would happen 13 years ago. If not, will he tell us how many high-risk flights—maybe involving dangerous people and weapons—have been allowed into the country without proper border security checks?

The Conservatives have broken the asylum system, bust the Home Office budget, badly undermined Britain’s border security and put our country’s security at risk. Will they ever get a grip?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am very disappointed with the right hon. Lady’s response on the certainty provided by yesterday’s announcement on Ukraine. Just before the February recess, we had a good debate involving colleagues from across the House where there were calls for certainty on the future of those visa schemes. The Government have come forward and provided that assurance about where we go from here.

Of course, the first of those visas does not expire until 2025. If we add on the 18-month period, that is an additional two and a half years of certainty for individuals from the here and now, which I think is very welcome. There will continue to be an in-country and out-of-country approach. We of course engage with our Ukrainian friends and allies and will support them in any way we can. We are ahead of the curve internationally in giving that assurance. The right hon. Lady should be on the front foot in welcoming that, because it is good, positive news.

We will publish the reports by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration and our responses to them. That will happen soon. On the right hon. Lady’s questions about the flights at London City airport and the information put in the public domain, the Home Office categorically rejects the claims by David Neal. Mr Neal’s report on general aviation border checks at London City airport was submitted last week and underwent fact checking, as is standard practice. Mr Neal was made aware of a specific issue with the recording of data at London City airport that meant that a large proportion of flights recorded as high risk should have been reclassified as low risk. It is disappointing that he has chosen to put misleading data into the public domain.

The Home Office’s priority is to deliver a safe and secure border, and we will never compromise on that. When notified, we cleared 100% of high-risk general aviation flights either remotely or in person, in accordance with the GA guidance, and we are committed to responding effectively, using an intelligence-led approach, as well as to working thoroughly with the wider law enforcement community.

The right hon. Lady will appreciate that there is a report on this issue. We will respond to the inspector’s report, and that response will have answers to the substantive points posed in it. We will deal with it in entirely the proper way.

It is rather ironic that the right hon. Lady talked about the Opposition’s stance on the security of our border, because she quite happily voted against the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 when we legislated to introduce electronic travel authorisations, which are critical to the future of our border security and allow greater automation for passengers. They improve the passenger experience at the border while being robust on border security. [Interruption.] She is chuntering away, but she voted against those important measures.

When it comes to dangerous foreign criminals on our streets, we hear those on the Opposition Benches opposing removal flights—the Leader of the Opposition and others have taken that stance. They would allow dangerous criminals and dangerous individuals to be on the streets of the United Kingdom.

This Government have a credible plan to stop the small boat crossings of the channel and the risk that they present to our security, as well as the wider criminality. Again, the right hon. Lady has opposed all those steps. We have a plan and we are working through it. That is the position and it is clear for all to see.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
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Either I misheard, or the suggestion by the Opposition that the measure the Minister has introduced will prevent Ukrainian family members from coming to Britain is deeply untrue and highly irresponsible, isn’t it?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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My right hon. Friend summarises the situation neatly. There will continue to be an in-country opportunity for people to apply to extend their visas. Through the Homes for Ukraine scheme, Ukrainians will still be able to come to the UK to access the sanctuary that we proudly support. We have seen communities across the country doing an enormous amount of positive, welcome work to support that national effort. Any suggestion that that will not be the case moving forward is wrong—it is deliberate scaremongering and people should stop it.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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There is a bitter irony in the UK Government making changes to health and social care visas—a sector that is crying out for people—that will make it more difficult for people to come and look after our loved ones. They say, “Come and look after our loved ones, but you can’t bring your own.” How utterly heartless. The sector is dominated by women, who are more likely to have children with them. What equality impact assessment has the Minister carried out on these very poor plans? What advice is he taking from the Migration Advisory Committee? This is a crisis of the Government’s making. The committee encouraged the Government to pay people in the health and social care sector more and commended Scotland, which has less reliance on people coming in because we have a workforce strategy and we pay care workers the real living wage. Will he do the same?

Saturday 24 February marks two years since the escalation of Russian aggression in Ukraine—two years longer than any of us would have wanted. We are appalled that this week the UK Government have made it more difficult for Ukrainians to seek sanctuary here by closing the Ukraine family scheme with immediate effect at 3 pm yesterday, with absolutely no notice. The Minister talked of an 18-month extension, but for new applications that has been reduced from years. Those who hold visas now cannot sponsor, so the wives who want to bring injured husbands to live here presumably can no longer do so. How can he say that is fair? How can this Government say “Slava Ukraini” while closing the door to those in need?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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To deal with the latter points first, that is not the case. There continues to be a route for Ukrainians to come to the United Kingdom. It is arguably a more effective route to facilitate sanctuary for people, with all the enhanced checks and support that come with the Homes for Ukraine route. There is the ability for people who are here in the UK to sustain and extend their sanctuary. The hon. Lady should welcome that; she was involved in the Westminster Hall debate before the recess, as was I. I am proud of the Government’s work to support communities to facilitate that sanctuary. We will continue to be front footed and forward leaning when it comes to doing so, because it is morally critical that we are at the forefront and are giving people that certainty, way ahead of our international allies. Again, she should welcome that.

When it comes to care workers, as I have said on many occasions, the current situation for dependants is disproportionate. We saw 120,000 dependants come with 100,000 care workers. That is not sustainable in the longer term. That is why we are taking forward these measures. The hon. Lady mentioned specifically the Migration Advisory Committee, which has consistently said that migration is not the answer to workforce shortages in the social care sector. That is why the Government have invested £7.5 billion to support the strategy for social care workforce development and to boost capacity in social care, including through retention of the dedicated workforce already undertaking these vital roles.

As a former Minister for Disabled People at the Department for Work and Pensions, I can also say that I firmly back the work the Government are doing to support more people domestically into work through the comprehensive back to work plan. The hon. Lady should support those efforts. We are putting real resourcing behind that—that should be our first port of call.

Lee Anderson Portrait Lee Anderson (Ashfield) (Con)
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I welcome the news that the Ukrainian visa scheme has been extended by 18 months; that is very generous. Could the Minister confirm that while there is a war in Ukraine and while it is unsafe for these families to return, they will have a home in this country?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I know that my hon. Friend cares deeply about providing that sanctuary for our Ukrainian friends, as do I, colleagues across Government and, I would argue, Members across this House. We are all incredibly moved by what we have seen in our communities, with people rallying behind those Ukrainians to support them and to provide that warm welcome. We will continue to sustain that effort, which we do in partnership with the Ukrainian Government; we regularly discuss these matters with them. Of course, we will continue to sustain that sanctuary for the duration of this invasion. We are firmly on the side of the Ukrainians in winning this war.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee.

Diana Johnson Portrait Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
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Accountability and oversight are critical to the effective management of UK border security. The Home Affairs Committee has repeatedly questioned the Government about the delay in the Home Office publishing the chief inspector’s reports—I understand there are now 15 reports outstanding. We are also concerned as the chief inspector is the statutory body, and there is no deputy or provision for the institution to exist without the chief inspector in post. With David Neal leaving at the end of March, will the Minister update the House on what has happened to the recruitment process that ended in December? When will the Home Affairs Committee get the pre-appointment hearing that we are entitled to have for the new chief inspector?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I think the Chairman of the Committee will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on appointment-related matters, but we will follow the proper process in appointing a chief inspector of borders and immigration. The shadow Home Secretary also asked about the laying before Parliament of the Government’s responses to the reports; as I said in response to that question, it will happen soon.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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People who want to work in our care sector from other countries are welcome to do so where it is appropriate. However, under the current model, many people are paying thousands of pounds to agents to contact care home owners in this country who, even if there are no vacancies, will allow people to come here and send them off to work in supermarkets or other areas. The pay then goes back to the agent—the individuals do not even get the pay. Will the Minister take measures to combat what is clearly a criminal conspiracy and prevent it from happening? People who want to come and work here are being exploited ruthlessly.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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Where we see abuse of our migration routes, we will root that out and deal with it robustly. That is one of the reasons the Care Quality Commission accreditation angle has been such an important part of the package of measures we are taking forward, ensuring that the roles people come here to fulfil are credible, real jobs in these workplaces. We think it is right that there is a better audit trail for those appointments, not least for the very reason my hon. Friend highlights—to minimise the risks of people being exploited, cheated and sold a fake prospectus for what they are signing up to. That cannot be right. It is right that we as a Government take a robust posture over it.

Angus Brendan MacNeil Portrait Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (Ind)
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Tapadh leibh, Mr Speaker, and thank you for taking this urgent question. As you know, I tabled something similar after the BBC and The Guardian reported that the family unification route for Ukrainian families had been unexpectedly closed. I warned the Government against such mean-mindedness. The UK Government were the meanest-minded in Europe at the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, which caused a lot of work for civil servants, for the Government themselves, and for MPs—all unnecessarily. Most importantly, it caused angst for families in Na h-Eileanan an Iar and elsewhere, and concern and worry for those who want to come to the islands and elsewhere. Why? I would ask them to think again. Can the Minister confirm exactly what he has done? I have a feeling he is being economical with clarity here. Are the BBC and The Guardian wrong in what they have reported?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The position, very clearly, is that we have arguably been the most generous with the approach we have adopted to provide sanctuary to our Ukrainian friends. There will continue to be an out-of-country route through the Homes for Ukraine scheme to enable people to come here, as well as the visa extension. As I said, we are getting on the front foot earlier than others in providing certainty and in terms of the length of those visas. Those are measures to be welcomed, not traduced.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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There is a certain irony about Opposition Members going on about border security, when a lot of them tried to prevent a load of convicted criminals from being deported. I welcome the income thresholds going up for getting visas and the changes for social care workers, too. I have been very concerned that other countries have produced evidence about how that route was abused and it is right that we clamp down on dependants coming here. On the welcome changes to net legal migration, will the Minister provide the evidence and data soon to show the public that it is finally heading in the right direction and that they are being heard? I am incredibly concerned that if mainstream parties, such as ourselves, do not get it and show the public that we get it on migration, it will fuel the extremes.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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My hon. Friend speaks with real passion and I know that people in Ipswich feel very strongly about this issue. That is why, as a Government, we have a credible plan to bring the numbers down. We believe the inflows will be reduced by 300,000, taking into account the changes we are delivering, relative to the year prior. On his request on what we can do to report around that and provide information about the progress we are making, that is something I am considering.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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So, when does the Minister expect the next independent chief inspector of borders and immigration to take up the post?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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We will follow the proper process to make an appointment.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con)
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It is obviously right that we helped those in Ukraine who urgently needed our help, but most people in Stoke-on-Trent and wider north Staffordshire think that the net migration figures have been unacceptably high, and that that has put significant pressure on our local services. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree with me that it is right that those who come here and use services but have not contributed to their cost should face higher visa and nationality fees?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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My hon. Friend is right to touch on the general feeling in Stoke-on-Trent about the net migration situation. That is why we are taking action. The Government feel that the borders and migration system costs we charge people to access those services should reflect the costs we incur. It should not fall to the UK taxpayer to pick up those costs; it should be the individuals who avail themselves of those services who cover their costs. We continue to work towards that in greater detail.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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Aviation has been consistently flagged as a danger to national security. Does the Minister agree that the failure to check those arriving in the UK that way is putting the United Kingdom at risk?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I refer the hon. Lady to what I said in relation to the shadow Home Secretary’s earlier contribution and the questions she asked on that issue. We treat that subject with utmost seriousness. We will, of course, respond to the ICIBI report in a proper and thorough way, having considered the points it raises and ensuring that proper fact-checking is carried out for the reasons I have touched on.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
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If the purpose of yesterday’s announcement was to provide some reassurance to Ukrainian citizens who have sought refuge in the UK, why are the Government forcing them to go through yet another application? Every Member of this House will have experienced the problems supporting the initial applications: there will be delays; different family members will get confirmation at different times; and children will be dropped off by mistake, causing great distress. My question to the Minister is this. Should UKVI not be focusing on its existing backlog, rather than adding unnecessary processes to its workload and distressing Ukrainian families who are now our constituents and living in the United Kingdom?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I disagree with the hon. and learned Lady. We think this is an appropriate approach to extending the visas. It is right and proper that there is a proper process around that, and there are obviously reasons why visas are handled in this particular way. Safeguarding concerns come into all these matters, including extensions, and that is why we will take the approach we take. I want it to be as light-touch as possible. I want it to be as easy as possible. All parliamentarians in this House should be providing reassurance today that the Ukrainian people in our country accessing sanctuary will continue to be able to do so. I would argue that that is the responsibility of all of us as leaders in our country.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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A lot of people in this country, including my constituents, will be amazed that in the week of Navalny’s murder by Putin and the tough times that the Ukrainians are facing against Russian reinforcements, the Government have announced restrictions on Ukrainian families coming here. I have campaigned for a long time, because so many wealthy Russian plutocrats have been flying into this country on small private aircraft and helicopters for a long time. I have asked questions about that. Perhaps we should ask Boris Johnson’s friend in the other place, Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia, what he knows about it.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The fact is that we are providing the certainty that Members across the House have been seeking for the future of the Ukraine scheme. I do not think the hon. Gentleman was in the debate we had prior to the February recess. I would argue that the House spoke with one voice, saying that we need to afford sanctuary for longer, recognising that the war remains ongoing but that the Ukrainian people continue to have our firm backing in their fight against Russian aggression. That is precisely what we have done through this announcement. I reject his characterisation of the situation. The message needs to go out that Ukrainians who are here will continue to be able to have that sanctuary in the years ahead.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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Families in all our constituencies, including East Renfrewshire, rely on the skills and compassion of those who work in the care sector. The chief executive of Scottish Care, Donald Macaskill, yesterday described the Government’s plan to ban overseas care workers from bringing dependants as “shameful and damaging”, saying:

“Treating international colleagues in this manner is contemptible.”

He is right, isn’t he?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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There will continue to be an opportunity for international recruitment for care purposes, but we cannot have a situation where 120,000 dependants come with 100,000 visa holders. That is not justifiable. That is not acceptable. That is why we are taking the approach we are taking. There will in future need to be a blend of approach to recruitment. I also happen to think it is right that we should strain every sinew to support people in this country to take on these roles with the proper skills, and that is precisely what the back to work plan does.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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Closing the Ukrainian families scheme almost two years to the day since Putin’s illegal war began is particularly cruel. The Government speak of a rationalisation of the schemes, but what we really need are further measures to support family reunification. Given the changes, what reassurance can the Government give to those on these schemes that they will be able to bring family members to the UK?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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We always keep under review the offer we have as part of the Ukraine scheme and that will continue to be the case, but I reiterate the point that what we have done through this package of changes in its entirety is to sustain an out-of-country route to enable Ukrainians to come to the UK to seek sanctuary, while giving certainty ahead of many other countries, including European Union countries with which the hon. Lady has an affinity. We have got ahead of the curve and provided certainty around sanctuary in a way that I think people in this country want to see.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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The changes the Government keep making to the Ukrainian scheme have unfortunately resulted in far too many Ukrainians becoming homeless. When will the Minister finally, as pledged by his predecessor, meet Glasgow Members of Parliament to discuss how Home Office policies are making refugees homeless in the city of Glasgow?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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In fact, the announcement has provided real certainty about the future of the Ukraine schemes at an early stage, and we are ahead of the curve internationally. The hon. Gentleman knows me well, and we have always had a constructive working relationship. I am very willing to meet him to discuss the issue of asylum accommodation and support for refugees in Glasgow, and I know that my colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities who lead on the accommodation side of the Ukraine scheme would also be happy to engage with him.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for all his helpful answers. In the context of the open border, may I ask what steps have been taken to ensure that Northern Ireland does not become the back door to the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. As he has recognised, we must ensure that our approach to border security is adopted properly throughout the United Kingdom. I was pleased to be able to have a constructive meeting about the future of the Ukraine schemes with the new Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland last week, as part of the conversations that are taking place with the devolved Governments. I told her that I would be very willing to meet her again, and I was delighted to see her in her place and taking on those responsibilities. I am sure that these are matters that she will want to discuss.