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Thangam in Immigration Bill debate

In my first major speech at Westminster since I returned from illness, last night I supported amendments to the Immigration Bill that would result in better treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

I spoke specifically in favour of Lords Amendment 87 (‘the Dubs amendment’) to bring 3000 unaccompanied child refugees to this country from the EU. I also praised the many hundreds of Bristol West constituents who have written to me urging me to help refugees, and who have donated time, money and practical help to refugees, both in camps and in Bristol – a City of Sanctuary.  

As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, I also announced there would be a public enquiry later this year into the way the country responds to refugees and asylum seekers.

Unfortunately, and to the dismay of many, the government last night voted down the Dods amendment.

The Immigration Bill now returns to the Lords, where Lord Dubs, who himself came to the UK as a child refugee from the Czech Republic on the kindertransport, will make another attempt to force the government to take action.

You can read my full, original speech below. Do bear in mind that I had to omit some parts in the chamber. You can also watch the broadcast version that appears at the bottom of this page, or use this link to the Parliament TV channel

My speech in the Immigration Bill debate on Monday 25 April 2016

Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for calling me to speak today. I rise to speak in support of amendments laid before the House in support of better treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. I speak specifically in favour of the Alf Dubs amendment to bring just 3000 unaccompanied child refugees to this country from the EU and also about refugees and immigration more widely, to try to help shed more light on a complex and often heated debate. I do so on behalf of many hundreds of people in Bristol West who have written to me urging me to help refugees. Many of them have also donated time, money and practical help, both in camps and in Bristol – a City of Sanctuary.

Madam Deputy Speaker, on Saturday I was fortunate to be at the Shakespeare Live event from Stratford and broadcast on the BBC. I understand there has been uproar in some quarters about the speech made by Sir Ian MacKellen, to my mind by far the stand-out high spot of the night. Nothing else came close in the potency of the language, the power and feeling of the delivery and the relevance today of a message written 400 or so years ago. This is given as a speech by Sir Thomas More, Sherriff of London during Henry VIII’s reign, addressing xenophobic rioters who tore through the city protesting against foreigners. He calls on them to “imagine that you see the wretched strangers, their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage, plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation”. A vivid description of the current situation for so many children and young people fleeing war today. He asks them to consider what they would do if they were refugees, what country would give them harbour, whether they would go “to France or Flanders, to any German province, to Spain or Portugal”, and to consider how they would feel if they were met “by a nation of such barbarous temper”. I ask every one of us here, if the worst happened and our children were alone and fleeing war and persecution, wouldn’t we hope that they would receive safe harbour in France or Flanders, Germany, Spain or Portugal?

The amendment we can pass tonight will help other children separated from their parents and fleeing war and persecution. We must help them before it is too late – children are going missing from refugee camps across Europe. I dread to think what conditions they are living in.

Madam Deputy Speaker, we would be failing in our duties as elected representatives if we did not show leadership to meet our commitments, legal obligations and moral imperatives, to refugees and asylum seekers.

Many people are concerned about immigration. Some believe that it is out of control, that they are suffering consequences of this and not having their concerns heard. They may not differentiate between refugees and other migrants. In my own constituency of Bristol West, I have a volume of emails from people urging me on to do more for refugees. But there are also worries.  Everyone here needs to be concerned about protecting refugees, particularly children and about how we respond to them here. We must shed light on both.

My own father was in many ways typical of most migrants. He came here in 1959 from India, first to study and work. He wanted to be part of the country which had given him that opportunity; he brought skills and paid taxes; he loved this country and he respected its rules and values. Most migrants everywhere in the world do exactly that. Refugees come here for safety from war and persecution. And this includes children.

The so-called ‘pull’ factor attributed to assistance to any migrants and to refugees in particular is misleading. First, because it associates them with taking rather than contributing. Second, it implies numbers vastly above the reality. Some newspaper headlines use  terms such as ‘floods’ or ‘hordes’ of migrants in general and refugees in particular. Let’s have a few facts.

The World Bank’s 2016 Migration and Remittances Factbook analyses migration in 2015.  Firstly it estimates that global migration in 2015 was 214 million people and, yes, that was an all-time high. However, it finds that South-South migration is larger than South-North migration.

The Factbook documents the impacts of migration on host and source nations. For host countries, these include migrants filling labour shortages – from the dirty, dangerous or difficult jobs native workers don’t want to do or skilled jobs for which we don’t have enough people suitably qualified.

Sonia Plaza, co-author of the Factbook says: “…. migration, both of highly skilled and low skilled workers, generates numerous benefits for receiving and sending countries. The diaspora of developing countries and return migration can be a source of capital, trade, investment, knowledge, and technology transfers.”

Her co-author Dilip Ratha adds: “At more than three times the size of development aid, international migrants’ remittances provide a lifeline for millions of households in developing countries. In addition, migrants hold more than $500 billion in annual savings. Together, remittances and migrant savings offer a substantial source of financing for development projects that can improve lives and livelihoods in developing countries.”

Migration helps our economies to grow, as migrants add their skills and knowledge, spend money locally and pay taxes. They are less likely than people born in this country to claim any state welfare. Many migrants, including refugees, set up their own businesses or help to run others, creating jobs for local people. Of the £417 billion they send back home, £306 billion of it goes to developing countries. This helps developing countries’ economies. This in turn benefits us as they trade with us, buy our goods, visit us as tourists or students and further help boost our economy.

In a survey of 15 European countries, the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that for every 1 per cent increase in a country’s population caused by immigration, its GDP grew between 1.25 and 1.5 per cent. The World Bank estimates that, if immigrants increased the workforces of wealthy countries by 3 per cent, it would boost world GDP by £246 billion by 2025. Removing all barriers to migration would have a massive effect. Some studies suggest it would increase world GDP by between 50 and 150 per cent.

Does migration affect local people’s wages and jobs? It would seem not. Different parts of non-EU Switzerland allowed free access to EU workers at different times, enabling Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis, to isolate the effects. He found that while the workforce grew by 4 per cent, there was no change in wages and employment for natives overall, though some moved to new jobs as a result.

The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility Fiscal Sustainability Report 2015 page 147 estimates that as a consequence of the effects described above, projected levels of immigration will actually help us to reduce the government’s debt as a proportion of GDP steadily and by one third by the middle of this century. They also estimate that if there were zero migration, we would actually increase our debt.

At the end of last year there were about 3,600 people in the UK currently who have been waiting longer than 6 months for a decision about their refugee status. That’s not a horde, it’s a potential benefit to this country. These are people who have skills they want to use, who have demonstrated their determination, resilience and courage in ways we can only imagine in their journeys here.

But it’s no wonder that so many people worry about the impact of migration when they are dealing with the impact including dispersal schemes which place pressure on areas where people are already struggling. The pressure on housing, health care and education services is not mitigated in people’s minds in the short term by the medium and longer-term contributions made by refugees (and other migrants). It’s not fair to expect people who’ve spent years on their local council housing register, or struggling with exorbitant private sector rents, to feel nothing about the impact of welcoming what they perceive to be hundreds of people from abroad. They may feel compassion for refugees but they also want to know where the all the housing will come from. They may not know the true numbers, or the other long term benefits. They may fear change. These are reasonable anxieties.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I believe the time is ripe for a transparent, informed, public debate about how we treat refugees and asylum seekers. This should include consideration of how we prepare local communities for new arrivals and how we plan for rapid expansion of necessary public services to meet increased demand, and of how we share out the impact of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers differently.  It will be difficult. There will be strong feelings and major challenges. No honourable member can ignore the chronic housing crisis, just as they cannot ignore the feelings of their own constituents and others.

But we cannot let the difficult be the enemy of the right. Protecting refugees is right. It is a human right we would expect if we were fleeing conflict or persecution. It is a human rights obligation we should be proud to honour and in the best ways we possibly can. It says something wonderful about our place in the world when we do that.

That’s why I am pleased to announce, as chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, that we will be holding a public enquiry into the way this country responds to refugees and asylum seekers. We will be putting out a call for written evidence before the summer recess and will be taking oral evidence in the autumn. I urge honourable members to discuss this topic with constituents and with members of their political parties during their conferences this September.

I believe that there also needs to be a wider, well-informed, enlightened and respectful debate about how we manage migration in general, in our parties and in the public sphere. I hope to be a leading voice in that debate and will be active in my own party, and wherever else I can, to help really listen to and respect people’s concerns. I want to help develop well-informed policy and practice to respond to migration worldwide and locally, with our partners in the EU and with developing and other countries.

To return to Shakespeare’s words and the decisions honourable members will make tonight. You can do your part for 3000 unaccompanied children. You can help protect children and young people the same age as our own children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces. Children who’ve struggled across the continent unprotected, perhaps abused along the way, hungry, in need of our protection. Our leadership, in our own constituencies, can help make sure that they are not met with the ‘barbarous temper’ Shakespeare describes and which I fear many are meeting along the way, from people traffickers and others seeking to exploit them, but with warmth and care and protection.  They will need more – we must plan for their arrival. But I hope and believe that we have it in us to manage that. 3000 children – that’s fewer than five per constituency. Surely we can manage to support our local authorities to find foster carers, psychological support and education for five children in each of our constituencies?

Madam Deputy Speaker, I urge honourable members tonight, as they go through the lobbies, to think of this.  Today you will be helping a child you have not met but who in 20 years’ time may be the doctor who saves your own child’s life. The midwife who helps deliver your grandchild. The teacher who fires up that grandchild’s ambition. The scientist who helps find a cure for asthma or diabetes or cancer. The engineer who finds better ways to make vehicles run on clean energy sources. The mechanic who keeps the train going, or the care assistant who will help look after you when you are old.

All of these people are children today. Some of them are your own children or your children’s friends and classmates. And some of them are waiting in a refugee camp or in the back of a lorry or living in a ditch or worse, waiting for you to help them, with your vote tonight.

Every one of us here when we are first elected hopes that we will make a difference. That our presence here will mean something. That we will be part of a force for good.

Tonight we get to do all of this, by voting for the Alf Dubs amendment.


References – all links come from the following sources

New Scientist - The truth about migration: How it will reshape our world 6 April 2016

Office for Budget Responsibility Fiscal Sustainability Report July 2013 

World Bank – Migration and Remittances Factbook 2016  

Why we should welcome 3000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe

In my first major speech at Westminster since I returned from illness, last night I supported amendments to the Immigration Bill that would result in better treatment of refugees and...


A parliamentary roundup – some highlights of 2016 so far

Next week Parliament returns following the Easter break and, in the next session, my Labour colleagues and I will continue to hold the Tory government to account on the damaging decisions it is making time and time again.

Since the start of the year the Labour Party has achieved some major victories in Parliament against the government. Here’s a brief roundup of some of them. From defending your rights at work, to forcing the government to reverse damaging disability cuts while giving the very richest a tax cut, Labour is making a real difference to people’s lives.


Just last month George Osborne delivered another budget and Labour revealed his record of failure.

He promised to balance the books by 2015 but the government is now set to borrow £38.5bn more than planned and public sector net investment and government investment is set to fall as a share of GDP over this Parliament.

Osborne’s Budget had unfairness at its very core. It was outrageous that half a million people with disabilities were set to lose over £1 billion in Personal Independence Payments, while the Chancellor decided to cut Capital Gains Tax. The OBR estimated his cuts would see 370,000 disabled people lose an average of £3,500 a year.

In a 48-hour period the Chancellor’s budget unravelled under Labour pressure and the government was forced to put its proposals on hold. This was followed by the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith, which further highlighted that George Osborne is trying to meet his own politically motivated targets on the backs of the most vulnerable – cutting support for people with disabilities to reduce taxes for the wealthiest.

This wasn’t the only climb down from the government. After a well-fought, cross-party campaign the government had to concede to the scrapping of the ‘tampon tax’, which was essentially a tax on women.

Even in opposition we have achieved real gains for British people in the wake of the Osborne’s unfair budget. The government has shown again that its recovery is built on sand. A Labour government would stand up for working people and invest in the future: in a high-technology, high-skill, high-wage economy.

Sunday trading laws

The government was also defeated on its plans to relax Sunday trading laws. With our 'Keep Sunday Special' campaign, Labour led the charge against the government’s plans and were joined by other opposition parties and Tory backbenchers to inflict a humiliating defeat.

The measures were first proposed in last year's Local Government and Devolution Bill, but were removed after strong opposition from Labour and some deep unease on the Tory backbenches. Then, at the last moment and with no prior warning, the Tories slipped the Sunday trading measures into this year’s Enterprise Bill.

The unpopularity of the proposals was clear. There was strong opposition from shop workers, trade unions and many retailers including Sainsbury’s. There was little demand from consumers for a change. The evidence base for change was also weak – sales actually decreased when Sunday trading rules were relaxed during the Olympics.

Labour argued that extending Sunday trading hours would lead to the gradual reduction of workers’ pay and rights across the UK. The current arrangements worked well, and meant that retailers could trade, customers could shop, and shop workers could spend time with their families. On top of all of this, the Prime Minister said he had no plans to change the Sunday trading rules ahead of last year's election. The Tories had no mandate for this change.

In a last-minute attempt by the Prime Minister to avert defeat, the government floated the idea of giving powers to councils to authorise all-day trading on Sundays, on a pilot basis. But this was not enough and in the end MPs voted by 317 votes to 286, a majority 31, to scrap the proposal.

Trade Union Bill

Fresh from their defeat on Sunday trading, the government suffered another crushing defeat on the Trade Union Bill, this time by Labour peers in the House of Lords.

The Trade Union Bill is the most significant, sustained and partisan attack on trade union members and their workplace organisations that we have seen in this country in the last 30 years. Ever since the Bill was introduced, Labour have been fighting hard in opposition, leading to some crucial victories in the House of Lords.

The government was defeated on its plans to change the way trade unionists pay into their union political fund. The legislation required union members to ‘opt in’ every five years to remain in the political fund. It would have given unions just three months to sign up their members to the fund and required them to get the written consent. It was a blatant attack on the ability of unions to campaign for their members and a partisan attack on the Labour Party’s funding to remain an effective opposition. The House of Lords voted by a majority of 148 to call for a rethink, and for unions to be given a 12-month grace period for the changes to be phased in.

The House of Lords also voted down the government’s proposals to reduce facility time for union reps in the public sector. This is time off, agreed between employers and unions, for their elected representatives to support their members and maintain good industrial relations. Significant number of public sector employers have testified to the value of facility time and we hope that the government will accept that this is a change no one wants or needs.
The government was heavily defeated on all three votes and will now be forced to rethink its plans when the Bill returns to the Commons. The government now has a real opportunity to listen to the concerns expressed by Labour and working people across Britain. And we’ll keep urging the government to think again and withdraw this divisive Bill.

Looking ahead

After days of dodging the question, David Cameron finally admitted that he had a stake in his father’s offshore trust. We all want a government that clamps down on tax avoidance, with ministers that play by the same rules as the rest of us. When Parliament returns, Labour will be standing up for ordinary people and challenging the government to finally step up and tackle the issue of tax avoidance.

The future of the steel industry still hangs in the balance with tens of thousands of jobs at risk. Labour MPs have raised the issue 203 times in the House of Commons since last May, yet this Tory government has failed to take action time and time again. The government can no longer afford to do nothing. Labour will continue to press the Tories to save our steel industry now.

Over the next parliamentary session, I’ll continue to stand up for the people of Bristol West, holding the government to account, for example, on: its costly and unwanted educational reforms; cuts to Bristol City Council’s funding; the housing crisis; and their failures to protect and support the NHS.


A parliamentary roundup – some highlights of 2016 so far

A parliamentary roundup – some highlights of 2016 so far Next week Parliament returns following the Easter break and, in the next session, my Labour colleagues and I will continue...


Today I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate that was triggered by a petition for ‘Jeremy Hunt to resume meaningful contract negotiations with the BMA’. Bristol West contributed more signatures to this petition than any other constituency. I have, in addition, received hundreds of emails and letters from people angry about how the Government have mishandled the new junior doctors’ contract.

Please see below a video of my speech, where I discuss my experience of the NHS, the dedication and professionalism of its staff, and the strain our health service is now under because of the Government’s misplaced priorities. The Government need to go back to the negotiating table and understand the concerns that junior doctors are raising. If the current approach continues, ultimately it is patients who will suffer.

(If the video does not load try this link)

My speech in Parliament on the Junior Doctors' Contract

Today I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate that was triggered by a petition for ‘Jeremy Hunt to resume meaningful contract negotiations with the BMA’. Bristol West contributed more signatures...

Thangam Debbonaire is the MP for Bristol West constituency. 

If you would like to contact Thangam to arrange a meeting or discuss a problem, please email . 

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