Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Ms Abbott: I begin by thanking the Minister for listening to what was said in Committee and outside and making some move to meet our concerns through the new clause. However, in his opening remarks the Minister characterised people's response to immigration legislation as either knee-jerk leftism or knee-jerk rightism. I suggest

15 Jun 1999 : Column 281

that one of the things that characterises people's response to immigration legislation is their personal and constituency experience.

I have never had much taste for the tone in which Ministers talk about economic migrants because my parents were economic migrants, although they were within the law. I come from a part of the world where, for at least three or four generations, people have used economic migration as a pressure valve to relieve poverty and deprivation, so I cannot buy into the tone that is sometimes adopted to people who travel thousands of miles to better their lives and those of their families, although one does not condone people doing that outside the law.

My constituency experience shapes my response to the new clause. For some of my colleagues, refugees and asylum seekers are transient figures who come through their constituencies for a few months and then are gone, but I represent a part of London where nearly everybody comes from somewhere else, be it Ireland, eastern Europe, Jamaica, Nigeria, Somalia or Iraq.

Outwardly, many people in my part of the world are pillars of the community, but technically they are overstayers. Many are wilful overstayers, but many others did not set out to subvert the Minister's legal system. They came here as children, as partners of men who became abusive and abandoned them, as students or as visitors. One cannot do as much immigration case work as I do and have any illusions about the saintliness of most people who come forward at surgeries, but the thread that is common to many of them is that they did not start out seeking to subvert the system. I would pray that in aid for them.

There is another common thread, certainly in many of the cases that I deal with. When Ministers talk about overstayers and economic migrants, they conjure up a world of triads, gangsterism and wicked, venal people whom all right-thinking people should condemn; but first, my children's school friends, party members and people I see in the supermarket did not start out seeking to subvert the system; and secondly, many of them are settled members of the community. I have dealt with pupils who have been shocked to find that some little boy whom they have known since nursery is facing deportation because--guess what?--his parents are overstayers.

I want to speak about what the new clause and its limitations will mean in practice in the context of my life and my constituency experience. As colleagues have said, the three-month period is not enough. Most immigrants--even legal immigrants--tend to keep their heads down. I remember previous deadlines for regularising people's situations, and when one was set by the Government of the day, I had to say firmly to my own mother--who was here perfectly legally, but on her Jamaican passport, to which she was very attached--that she should go and get a British passport because that was the best thing for her to do. Most immigrants--for all sorts of reasons and even if they are here legally--do not want to draw themselves to the attention of the authorities. How much worse are things for those who are here illegally?

Subsection (4) of the new clause says:

Presumably, that refers to the gentlemen and ladies in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, and we will come to its operations as we go through the Bill.

15 Jun 1999 : Column 282

Some Members are slavish in congratulating the IND, and I am sure that many of its personnel are very nice people who go to church and are kind to animals, but the level of efficiency and the appalling state of the IND at present give me no confidence that it will publicise the effect of the subsection.

In effect, and as so often happens, these matters may come down to word of mouth. I do not think that three months is enough time for news of the subsection's effect to get round the Nigerian, Ghanaian, Iraqi and Somali communities in my constituency by word of mouth, or for their members to be persuaded to present themselves; and many people will miss out if the regularisation period is as brief as that suggested in the new clause.

I also think that there will be a problem towards the end of the three months when news of the subsection's effect finally gets round by word of mouth. There will be a big rush. How will the IND, which has boxes and boxes of unopened cases and misplaced files, deal with any sudden rush? We know what happened when the IND had to deal with previous rushes.

Some people have said that the new clause is a technical measure, but I know that, in the months and years to come, I will be dealing with some very sad cases as a consequence of it--cases involving people who, to all intents and purposes, are settled members of the community. Yes, technically they are outside the law, and yes, they are economic migrants; but have matters come to such a point that we, as a House, will condemn people who did not set out to subvert the law, and who are trying to play their part in the community?

It would be churlish not to welcome the extent to which the Government are meeting the need by tabling new clause 1, but I do not think that it will deal with circumstances in my constituency, and I hope that they will try to improve their proposals in another place.

11 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien: We have had a short but useful debate, in which hon. Members have been able to express a welcome of sorts for our proposals. Some reactions have been warmer than others, but we have listened to what has been said, and have responded with the new clause and the amendments grouped with it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said that overstayers could use other avenues of appeal. I think that the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) alluded to that as well. If overstayers wish to raise a family issue, or another issue that might properly be raised on the basis of the European convention on human rights, they are entitled to use that appeal mechanism on family and other compassionate grounds, provided that those grounds come within the provisions of the ECHR. However, we are introducing new powers for adjudicators to deal robustly with representatives who might seek to abuse such a system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) mentioned the Daily Express articles. I shall not comment on the case in question because it is before the courts; but overstayers are breaching immigration controls, and that is against the law. The Government were elected on the basis of their promise to establish firm immigration controls, and that sometimes means removing people who have been here for some time. People must face up to that unpalatable fact. Sometimes

15 Jun 1999 : Column 283

people will the ends, but not the means. It is important for us to convey the message that overstaying is breaching the law, and we must ensure that we enforce the law.

Our aim is to create a system that works. We want a system that considers the particular circumstances of individuals, and offers appeal rights where they are appropriate; but we do not feel that people who have no right to remain here should be able to do so, and drag out the process of their removal.

Ms Abbott: Does my hon. Friend accept that some people are overstayers owing to circumstances beyond their control, either because they came here as children or because they came here as partners of men who either turned out to have other wives or subsequently abused them? I see a lot of that in some communities.

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend has written to me a number of times citing cases that she has taken to Ministers on compassionate grounds. We listen carefully, and, if there is a strong case, Ministers have discretion to make decisions on such grounds. That right will remain with them. However, lengthy legal procedures--and deportation procedures take a long time--enable people with no right to be here to drag things out, and that is unacceptable.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere asked me whether the criteria for the decisions would be the same as they are now. The answer is yes: there will be no relaxation of the criteria. As for how long the regularisation period will last, we envisage a period of about a year, but we shall consult various groups and listen to the debate as it progresses.

A number of hon. Members asked about publicity. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) that we are committed to proper publicity. We aim to advertise in various ethnic minority media, including some of the international publications that are read by groups that may be overstaying in the country; but there are other ways of conveying our message through community groups.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow welcomed the changes, but sought more. I understand why he did so, but he was right to say that we had listened. I think that we have gone as far as we can, but we shall continue to listen, as far as we are able, during proceedings in another place.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) sought more detail on the process. That detail is more properly given during consideration of the regulations that will, in due course, evolve from the Bill, but essentially, the idea is that there will be a period during which will have to apply. It will be properly advertised. A decision will be made under the current criteria on whether people should be allowed to remain. If the decision goes against them, they will be entitled to an appeal.

The appeal will occur in much the way that it does now, except, as the hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware, that the backlog of appeals is now quite low, so the decision on appeal should be able to be made fairly quickly. We intend to ensure that we keep that appeal backlog low, so that such decisions can be made rapidly.

15 Jun 1999 : Column 284

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough was concerned about overstayers with families. One of my problems as a Minister arises when hon. Members are concerned about the families of people who are subject to deportation proceedings. Someone who is deported is prevented from re-entering the country for three years. Their wives and children may become very disturbed about the deportation. The wife and children, or the other spouse and children, may not need to leave the country. They therefore have a choice. Do they go with someone who may be out of the country for three years, or do they remain? That is a difficult choice. It often deters people who have a deportation order against them from going voluntarily.

What will happen with the removal process is that there will not be the three-year period, so people with--

Next Section

IndexHome Page