For months now I have been asking in the House of Commons about when we are going to get the Immigration Bill (a Bill is the draft stage of a law, which we debate and amend in various stages).
This was supposed to have happened earlier this year as it is necessary for the change in rules after we leave the European Union. But for months the government was waiting for the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to prepare a report and recommendations. The MAC report was finally published in September this year and it has taken them until today, 19th December, to publish their Immigration White Paper – the consultation document to set the framework for the Bill.
There’s virtually nothing in this White Paper to be welcoming and much to be worried about.
The Home Secretary came to the House of Commons to make a statement about it.
I was expecting it to be disappointing, but in my view, it is a disgrace.
The Home Secretary seems to be proposing a post-Brexit system whereby every single visitor to the UK will need either a Visa or a Visa Waiver document, both of which will require prior application and cost.
There is a provision for temporary workers to come to this country, to carry out low-skilled seasonal work but they will have no rights to bring dependents, can only stay for twelve months and after that will have to leave for a further twelve month so-called ‘cooling-off’ period. The very language used is horrifying – cooling-off from what? From doing unskilled jobs nobody else will do? It’s insulting and is hardly going to help with integration.
There is a baffling statement of intent to have a minimum income threshold for high skilled worker but no clear figure for this. The MAC report recommends £30,000, the Prime Minister at the Conservative Party conference mentioned £50,000 but the Home Secretary still has not made up his mind. He ignored the very sensible questions from my colleagues about shortages of skilled labour in jobs where the pay is less than £30,000. This is bad news for university research labs or care homes, for example, where a significant number of staff come from other countries.
There was no offer to reform the broken immigration system. This system is at best inefficient and woefully understaffed but as the Windrush scandal earlier this year showed, unjust and inhumane at worst. This is bad news for anyone applying to live, work or visit the UK.
The family visit visa system is failing. At the moment it is keeping family members from attending family events. This was not mentioned. This is bad news for families.
Avoiding the UK’s responsibility to refugees
But what I wanted to see was much needed and long overdue reform to how asylum-seekers and refugees are treated. I had hoped that the Home Secretary would see this as an opportunity to improve how we respond to those people who have to flee their own country due to war, torture and persecution. 65 million people worldwide are forcibly displaced – this is a global crisis and we are falling short of doing the best we can to help share the responsibility.
I wanted to see changes to the rights to work for refugees, so they can work sooner, contribute their skills and support themselves and their families. I wanted to see families reunited through updating the laws on refugee family reunion. There should be an end to the use of indefinite detention. There could be an extension to the 28 day move-one period after someone acquires refugee status, to prevent refugees from becoming destitute and homeless. The Home Secretary could have promised to end the use of unsafe, unhygienic, expensive and inadequate asylum accommodation.
Not one of these improvements, all much needed, all with support from MPs from within all political parties and called for by refugees and organisations supporting refugees, not one of these is mentioned in the White Paper.
So why did the Home Secretary tell me that I must have been reading a different White Paper from the one he read, when I challenged him on how disappointing it is that he has failed to take the opportunity to reform the welcome we give to refugees?
The White Paper chapter 10 on ‘Protecting the Vulnerable’ is the only place where there is consideration of refugees and almost all of it is about continuing to do exactly the same as now. There are two improvements mentioned. One is a welcome commitment to bring in a strategy to increase the quantity of English classes – and I am pleased to see that.
But the only other improvement mentioned is in 10.12: ‘We will continue to work to improve both the quality and accuracy of decision making top prioritise getting decisions right the first time’.
This makes me very angry. There is no evidence whatsoever of any work to improve decision making – in fact, my experience from my casework is the opposite. Quality and accuracy are getting worse.
So what next?
I’ve been calling for all the above improvements for some time, in meetings with Ministers, in the House of Commons, with refugees and refugee organisations. I have researched the legal options for change and am working closely with colleagues and refugee organisations on the campaigning.
Over the Parliamentary recess I will work on how we can bring amendments to the forthcoming Immigration Bill which will come after this White Paper’s consultation period.
In the Chamber and elsewhere I will be challenging the language and the directions of this government’s Immigration policy, which appears to treat immigration as a problem or a disease to be cured, rather than a benefit and a source of cultural enrichment to our country.
I will prioritise challenging the government on this and also working on an alternative, positive vision for migration in the 21st Century.