Previous Section Index Home Page

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I represent a constituency with a high number of what are generically referred to as asylum seekers, although some of them might be refugees who have been granted leave to remain in this country because of the risk of persecution in their homeland. Many of those have become British citizens or are here as EU citizens, having come over from the Netherlands or Denmark, for instance. I am told that there are about 500 or so actual asylum seekers in Bristol, by which I mean those
5 Feb 2007 : Column 644
people who are waiting for their claims to be determined. However, many more are failed asylum seekers who have had their initial claims rejected. They are going through the appeals process or have—this applies to many of them—exhausted all legal avenues. In theory, they are waiting to be deported, but the practicality, in my constituency at least, is that because many hail from Somalia, there are problems with deporting them because of the difficult circumstances in that country. As such, many of them are likely to remain in this country for years to come.

That is the context of my comments. My constituency in the city of Bristol, like the constituencies of many hon. Members in the Chamber, has seen the arrival of new migrant workers, but I want to talk about the impact of what are generically referred to as asylum seekers. Before I make more detailed points, however, I want to make it clear that it is my passionate belief that Bristol has benefited hugely from the contribution made by its various immigrant communities over the years, including those who have arrived here seeking asylum. I did not recognise the picture painted by the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). He seemed to think that Huguenots, Jews and people from Uganda were okay. I would flag up the Irish community, people who have come down from Scotland, Afro-Caribbean communities, Somali communities, Pakistani-Kashmiri communities and Indian communities as communities that have all settled well in Bristol and contribute to life there. That is why I pressed him on the point and tried to get out of him exactly who was causing so much trouble in his area.

Businesses in my constituency have told me that they would be unable to fill job vacancies were it not for the arrival of fairly significant numbers of people from Somalia and, more recently, eastern European migrant workers. Although unemployment in Bristol is low by recent historical standards, their comments raise interesting questions about the skills levels and the employability of the long-term unemployed who do not come from those groups, but that is probably a subject for another day.

When I have visited schools in my constituency, I have met children from refugee and migrant communities, some of whom did not speak a word of English before they started school—indeed, some had never set foot in a classroom before. I have seen how well they have adapted to life here and how fluent they have become in the English language after only a few months in the city. They are to be commended for that. It is indicative that the city academy in my constituency, which has a high proportion of refugees, asylum seekers and children of migrant workers among its pupils, recently made it into the top 100 schools in the country in the contextual value added tables. That shows just how much these children can overcome. Having gone through horrendous experiences in their countries, they can achieve a huge amount in a small time, given the right support.

I am proud of the way in which Bristol and my constituency in particular, which contains the most diverse areas of the city, have coped with the changes over recent years. Areas that were predominantly white until the last decade or so are now much more diverse, but peaceful co-existence is the rule rather than the exception. I was at the launch a few weeks ago of the
5 Feb 2007 : Column 645
Bob Woodward centre in Eastville, which is one of five community cohesion centres that are being piloted across the country. The aim is to bring different communities together under one roof and to foster co-operation and co-working. That is surely the way forward.

Mr. Graham Stuart: I am listening with interest to how the hon. Lady’s argument is developing. Is she saying that this country could cope with a much greater level of immigration than we have had in recent years?

Kerry McCarthy: It very much depends on how we would handle that. I accept that we need controls on immigration, but in some cases there is an economic need to allow in more migrant workers, particularly skilled migrant workers, on which the Government have already legislated. For those people who come here seeking asylum, we have a humanitarian duty to give them refuge. It is not a numbers game; it is a moral case.

It would be foolish to present a completely rose-tinted picture of what community relations are like in Bristol. Although I believe that the vast majority of people in the city are sympathetic to the needs of genuine refugees and have given them great support, there is undeniably resentment and tension, especially in some of the white working-class areas of my constituency where a serious shortage of affordable housing, pressure on public services, and competition for regeneration funding and even for fairly small pots of money can cause tension. Some people in those communities feel that their needs have been overlooked. That is why I welcome the Bill. It is important that we reassure people that the asylum and immigration system is not a free-for-all and is based on genuine need, whether it be the need of asylum seekers for a safe haven from persecution or our economic need for migrant workers. It is in the interests of all the genuine asylum seekers in my constituency and the migrant workers who have filled the jobs that could not otherwise have been filled that we make it clear that Britain does not and will not tolerate abuse of its asylum and immigration system. I welcome the Bill as another step in tightening up our laws.

I want to focus on a couple of measures. The introduction of biometric registration and identity cards will give us a means of identifying who a person is, what their immigration status is and whether they are entitled to work or to access state benefits. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and others said that that will not only help us to identify those who are not entitled to be here or to claim benefits, but will also help those who are entitled to those things.

I regularly deal with constituents who have leave to remain in this country and are entitled to work but who have a hard time convincing employers of that fact. The Royal Mail, for example, refuses to use the immigration and nationality directorate’s employers hotline and insists that employees produce a new letter from the Home Office every 13 weeks, which harks back to the infamous 13-weeks letters that people used to get, telling them when their case would be dealt with. Every 13 weeks constituents come to me requiring another letter that they can show to the Royal Mail confirming their eligibility to work. I would welcome anything that makes life easier for them.

5 Feb 2007 : Column 646

I have also dealt with a number of cases of mistaken identity. For example, people at the tax credits office have confused constituents of mine with people with similar names and the same date of birth, and they have demanded the return of overpayments from them. Again, that could be solved if they had an identity card. It took the best part of a year to convince the office that it was pursuing the wrong person, so I very much welcome that aspect of the Bill.

The other part of the Bill that I want to discuss deals with foreign prisoners, and introduces the assumption of automatic deportation for those who have been sentenced to 12 months or more in custody. It is with some trepidation that I raise the issue, given its sensitivity, but both the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and the hon. Member for Monmouth mentioned the case of the Somali man who last week was convicted of a very serious sexual assault on a seven-year-old girl. He happens to be a constituent of mine, and the assault was made on another constituent of mine in the Barton Hill area of my constituency. The case raises a huge number of complex issues. I certainly would not say that I have the answer to the question of how we should deal with someone in that position, but it is worth airing some of the issues that it raises.

The man in question, Sadiq Mohammed, is of Somali descent. He arrived in the United Kingdom in 1994, and after claiming asylum was given indefinite leave to remain. In 2000 he was convicted of several assaults on women, including one on a 14-year-old girl—although I believe in that case the charge was only one of common assault, nowhere near as serious as the most recent assault. Deportation was recommended, but, although not all the facts have emerged, we know that it was not carried out. I suspect that that was either because Mohammed had already been given indefinite leave to remain, or because of the continuing instability in Somalia.

Mohammed served two years of his four-year sentence. Several years after his release, he carried out the appalling attack on the seven-year-old. Thankfully he was caught and has now been given an indeterminate sentence, but the question of whether he should now be deported has been raised by many of my constituents. Although there is no doubt that he is of Somali descent, it is now being suggested that he may be a Kenyan national who has never set foot in Somalia, and who claimed asylum on false pretences. Before Opposition Members try to use that against us, I should say that I gather his original claim was made before Labour came to office. In any event, many of my constituents believe that even if he were returned to Somalia, whatever risk of persecution or torture he might run as a result of deportation, by carrying out that appalling attack he has surrendered any claim to our compassion. Quite simply, they do not care what happens to him in Somalia or any other country to which he might be sent. They just want to ensure that he is never again free to walk the streets of Barton Hill.

I should add that those who are calling most vociferously for Mohammed’s deportation are members of the Somali community. That may be because the victim was a Somali child, but they have told me that, as refugees
5 Feb 2007 : Column 647
themselves, they feel that he has abused the hospitality of this country and that his presence here should no longer be tolerated.

As I have said, the case is complex. As someone who has been accepted as a refugee, Mohammed has rights under the European convention on human rights and the Geneva convention, but I understand that even under current legislation, those rights can be overridden in the case of someone who has been convicted of a serious offence if he is considered to present a clear and grave danger to the community. Mohammed may therefore be eligible for deportation. I should welcome clarification of that point.

I should also welcome clarification of what will happen to people who have been given indeterminate sentences. At what stage of their sentences will deportation be considered? The Minister has expressed the view that people should be deported as early in their sentences as possible, but there is a very high risk that Mohammed will reoffend—he had already carried out a series of attacks before the most recent assault—and the effects on any future victim would last a lifetime. How can we ensure that we do not merely export the problem?

Obviously, as a constituency Member I feel that my priority is the welfare of the children living in my constituency, but if it is decided to deport Mohammed early in his sentence, who knows whether he will be allowed to walk the streets of Somalia, Kenya or wherever else he may be sent? Do we wash our hands of such people when they are deported, or do we still have a moral obligation to try to minimise the risk of their posing a risk to children elsewhere? People who had received lengthy prison sentences for, say, drug offences or serious violence would not be so obviously a risk to the community to which they were being sent. In cases in which children are the victims, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions.

I welcome the Bill. I think that it will help to implement some of the measures that we have discussed to create a firmer, fairer asylum and immigration system. However, I should like some clarification of how it will affect people in my constituent’s position.

8.5 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I apologise for having left the Chamber in the middle of the debate to attend an unavoidable meeting. I was particularly disappointed to miss the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) and for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson).

The Bill could have been used to simplify and consolidate existing legislation. In his opening remarks the Minister said that there would be a consolidation Bill next year. If only this were it. There seems to be a great deal of consensus and good will across the Chamber about the need to introduce more robust but fair immigration legislation, and we must all work hard together to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

The Bill is the fourth piece of legislation extending immigration officer powers since the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. It attempts to improve the mechanics of immigration without addressing the question of the
5 Feb 2007 : Column 648
level of immigration that will benefit the country while taking account of the labour market, public services and environmental and infrastructure issues. Parliament should hold a proper debate about demographics—population levels and distribution—every year, because circumstances change. In one year, the number of people required to come into the country might be very low, while in another year it might be very high. That debate should also take account of issues such as the number of people leaving the country, the availability of houses and jobs, skills shortages, and the number of places available in our schools and on our GP lists. A range of issues feed into the number of new people we need in the country, and those should be the subject of open debate. I hope the Government will allow that.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Is not housing the most fundamental infrastructure provision for a population that is growing as a result of immigration, and is not the Government’s most signal failure in that respect their failure to provide proper amounts of housing for both the indigenous population and those coming into the country?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I hope that the hon. Lady will not stray outside the remit of the Bill when she replies.

Angela Watkinson: As ever, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am guided by your advice.

The London borough of Havering probably has a lower percentage of immigrants than any other London borough. If it is not the lowest percentage, it is the second lowest. That is certainly the case in Upminster, which is part of Havering. In Upminster can be seen the acceptable face of immigration: most of its immigrant community, small as it is, consists of professional and business people who make a positive contribution to the community.

Just before Christmas, I was invited to a local restaurant for the inaugural dinner of the Emerson Park doctors’ association. Emerson Park is a ward in my constituency. I was amazed to see no fewer than 60 doctors, mainly although not exclusively from the Indian sub-continent, representing every aspect of the health profession from paediatrics to geriatrics and just about everything in between—and, of course, GPs. When I congratulated them on having assembled such a large number of people from such a small residential area, they said “Oh, we are not all here. There are about 150 of us in all.” That is an example of professionals making an essential contribution to the health service locally, and I am sure that that positive contribution from the immigrant population is replicated throughout the country.

There is no doubt that legislation is needed to secure our borders effectively and to ensure that all immigration is legal immigration. That is the crux of the matter. We want legal immigration. We do not want illegal immigration. Everyone who wants to settle here should apply through the proper channels. There is a need to ensure that new arrivals enter the country legally, that those who are already here illegally are identified and deported, and that those who have abused the hospitality of their host nation by committing crimes and have served custodial sentences are deported on release from prison. That is
5 Feb 2007 : Column 649
an enormous challenge. No one is pretending that that is an easy thing to deal with. It is delicate and difficult but we have to grasp the nettle.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Has my hon. Friend, like me, attended a citizenship ceremony at the local town hall? I was touched to see people from over 40 countries pledge allegiance to the Queen and sing the national anthem at the end of proceedings. Is that not what we should be aiming for, rather than the false premises of multiculturalism, which have demonstrably failed over the past 30 years?

Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have not attended an equivalent ceremony in my town hall. I appreciate the value of such ceremonies and of the great interest that immigrant parents take in their children's education, and how well immigrant children do in our schools. Often, they excel and outrun the indigenous children. There is a great lesson for us to learn there. The success of children in schools depends largely on the interest that their parents take in whether they attend school, participate fully and do their homework. That is reflected in the results in our schools.

This is an enormous challenge. The numbers that we are dealing with are vast, but it must be done, in fairness to genuine applicants who abide by the rules and to the existing community, including law-abiding immigrants who are working and contributing.

In 2006, the Government produced their immigration and nationality directorate review, the snappily titled, “Fair, effective, transparent and trusted: rebuilding confidence in our immigration system”—a candidate for a landscape paper if ever there was one. It highlighted its aims by stating:

Who could argue against that, except that there are all sorts of caveats about the way in which it will be put in place. All sorts of safeguards are required. I shall come to that later. Other aims in the review were to

and to

That is a particularly interesting one. I have anecdotal evidence from a constituent who tried to report people whom they knew to be making fraudulent claims to social security. They were told that the information was not wanted and turned away. They have not been taken seriously. There is an obvious opportunity there for social security offices to co-operate and take seriously the information that is given to them by neighbours who have observed things. It is not always immigrants. Sometimes it is for other reasons, but the principle is the same.

People feel a great sense of injustice, particularly if they get up every morning and go out to do a job that may not be very well paid. They may not enjoy it much but they are paying their taxes, keeping a roof over their heads and taking responsibility for their own lives and those of their children. When they see people
5 Feb 2007 : Column 650
cheating the system, they get angry. Social security officials whom they contact should be prepared to take that information seriously.

Another aim of the review was to

I understand that that means not subject to appeal on refugee and human rights grounds. I shall be corrected if I have misunderstood that, but non-suspensive appeals is a new term to me. The review goes on:

We will all applaud that if it is possible to implement and enforce it. There is some doubt as to whether EU legislation and human rights legislation will make that possible. I hope that the Minister will clarify what scope the Government have to make such laws that will not be superseded by European legislation.

The review says that another aim is to

Next Section Index Home Page