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20 Jun 2007 : Column 445WH—continued

There is a precedent. In 2003, there was a mini-amnesty in the UK, when the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), ordered it as a means of “clearing the backlog” of asylum cases. What was presented as an administrative matter was in effect a mini-regularisation programme. There were no recorded complaints that the 50,000 people who benefited had in any way abused the system. Equally, when the A8 countries joined the EU in 2004, the UK Government did not tell the Poles and Lithuanians who had been working here illegally that they should go to prison or back to their countries. They were asked to register.

A one-off regularisation of the sort that I support and that has been proposed by the Strangers into Citizens campaign or the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, recognises the dignity of human beings who have made new lives in this country. It would extend and reinforce the rule of law; level the playing field for low-paid workers; enable business to employ legally the labour that it needs; recognise the role that migrants already play in society; ensure that tens of thousands of British workers receive the protection of the law; shrink the underground economy; free up billions of pounds in extra taxes for the Exchequer; enable local authorities to plan better according to real population figures, not the increasingly out-of-date ones supplied by the census; solve the expensive, inhumane delay in processing old asylum claims; build a more cohesive British society; and turn outlaws into neighbours—“strangers into citizens”—in the best British tradition of pragmatism and justice. Furthermore, it might well be popular.

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, I advise Members that I intend to call Front-Bench spokespeople at 10.30 am.

9.53 am

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): It is good that we are having a debate about what we should do about a problem that everyone knows exists. There is the context of the Government agenda, which says that migrant workers bring economic benefits and considers managed migration. However, it also says that it will crack down on illegal working. Some of the proposals in the UK Borders Bill, which is still progressing through the House, are related to that.

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We know that very significant numbers of people are working here illegally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) said, we should consider what that means. Out there, the common concept of those who work illegally is that such people work in the moonlight economy. However, a lot of people are illegal in the sense that they do not have permission to work, but work in the mainstream economy. Over the years in constituency advice surgeries, I have seen lots of people who have come here through a variety of means. Some came originally as asylum seekers and were given permission to work, which had never been revoked; they still had a piece of paper stating that they had that permission. Others came with valid visas, got national insurance numbers and started to work. Others came as students. Others came from countries that are now on visa lists, but were not when they came, so they did not have to have a visa to come. All those people have national insurance numbers, pay tax and have been doing so in some cases for years and years. As my hon. Friend said, they get no benefit from that, but they have absolutely no security.

Clare Short: People who were recruited on a bursary by the national health service to train as nurses, and who have qualified, have then been told that they are not entitled to work in Britain. Has my hon. Friend come across that? We expensively train someone whom we need and then tell them that they should leave the country.

Mr. Gerrard: Yes, I have certainly seen examples of that.

A lot of those people are effectively settled: they have houses and families, and they pay rent or have mortgages. However, they have no security. Employers, particularly large ones, are starting to carry out more systematic checks on people’s right to work, so the people whom I have mentioned may lose their right to work at any time. The Home Office knows that lots of people are in that situation; that is precisely why it has included data-sharing proposals in the latest UK Borders Bill—to allow checks between records from the Inland Revenue and those from the Home Office and throw up those examples.

There are also people in a completely different situation. They are in the moonlight economy, have no national insurance number and work for employers who know very well what they are doing. Such people are most open to the worst forms of exploitation; I shall not repeat what has been said about that. They cannot enforce any employment rights whatever—not the minimum wage, not working conditions; all that goes by the board. That has an impact on other people working in the same industry or similar areas of work; I do not accept the argument that it does not.

If, as the Home Office says, we are to have a crackdown on illegal working—if we are to try systematically to discover employers that knowingly employ people illegally and if we are to cross-check Inland Revenue records with the Home Office’s and throw up all those people—what will then be done? I have never heard a single word from the Home Office, which knows the numbers involved, about how it intends to deal with the issue. I have heard arguments against our proposed regularisation scheme, but have never heard a single positive word about what will actually be done.

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If there are, as we suspect, up to 500,000 people, plus dependants, in the situation that I have described, the absolute reality is that they are not all going to be removed. That is a simple fact; it would be absolutely impossible. At the current rate of removals, doing so would take 25 years. Even if that rate were stepped up, lots and lots of people would be thrown up but would end up not being removed.

What would happen to them? Would they just be left destitute? Some will be if we carry on doing nothing. They would lose their jobs, they could not claim benefits and they could not get another job. They have families, and rent to pay and so on. Are we going to leave them destitute? Is that the policy? Frankly, that would be a non-starter and would not work.

If the Home Office is going to argue that it will not go for a systematic regularisation scheme, it has to produce some other systematic way to deal with those people. It is no good simply saying that we will deal with them individually, because we know what will happen. We know the size of the backlog in the Home Office, and how long it takes. People come to see us who have put in applications 18 months or two years ago that are still sitting in the Home Office and not being dealt with. Saying that we will deal with the problem by dealing with these people individually is unreal.

The only way in which we can deal fairly with the problem is through a regularisation scheme, whether it is one of the proposed schemes or something else—we can argue about the details of what it should be. I do not believe that the proposed approach would necessarily be a magnet if it was properly dealt with and a one-off. Italy was mentioned, but it has notoriously lax border controls and so it is not comparable. If the Home Office make the border controls work, and make some things work better—such as when people are able to get a national insurance number when they do not have the right to one—and if a regularisation scheme is combined with the introduction of the sort of controls proposed by the Home Office, I do not see any reason why such a process should become a magnet.

Let me conclude by returning to an earlier point. If we are going to go for the rogue employers and throw up all those individual cases, what does the Home Office propose to do? I ask the Minister, please, not to tell me that it will consider each individual case as it arises, because that will be a recipe for chaos. There is only one sensible way in which to deal with the situation, which is through a clear, one-off regularisation scheme that allows people to know where they stand. People can then behave as citizens rather than living all the time without knowing whether they will be out of a job and with no money next week.

10.2 am

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on securing it. I have been closely following his campaign on the issue, not least because in the two years since I was appointed to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe I have been an active member of the committee on migration, refugees and population. I am its rapporteur for a major inquiry into, and report on, regularisation programmes for irregular migrants. In Strasbourg next week, I anticipate that my report will
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be approved by the committee for debate in the plenary session in early October and that that report will be supported by Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Members of this House as well as Members of Parliament from all political parties in 46 European countries.

In an intervention, the hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) made the point that this is probably the most serious and intractable problem to face our society. I have no doubt from what I have seen and learned over the past two years that that is undoubtedly the case. Time does not permit us to go into all the detail of what will be in my report, but I am more than happy to make a copy of it available to any Member. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who is our Front-Bench spokesman, and I have exchanged comments on the matter and I have kept him informed of some of the work that we have done.

What we have to do, above all else, is to face the facts. At a conservative estimate, there are probably between 5.5 million and 6.5 million irregular migrants in the European Union alone, and considerably more in other European countries outside the EU, with between 8 million and 10 million irregular migrants living in Russia. It has become ever more clear that a large proportion of those persons will remain in Europe, sometimes moving from country to country, and that it will not be possible to return them forcibly or voluntarily to their countries of origin. The question arises of how to deal with those irregular migrants who live in Europe and are tolerated, for the large part, but who do not have a legal status or a right to remain. The speeches made by the hon. Members for Dagenham and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), as well as some of the interventions, colourfully illustrated the problems that we all know exist.

Several member states of the Council of Europe have in the past undertaken so-called regularisation programmes. My research shows that in the past 25 years, more than 20 regularisation programmes have been carried out within the European Union alone, providing 4 million irregular migrants with either temporary or permanent residence and work permits. A substantial regularisation programme is under way in Russia, where 1.5 million people have been regularised—600,000 are in jobs, and the other 900,000 are spouses and dependants. A range of different programmes have been tried, including exceptional humanitarian programmes, family reunification programmes, permanent or continuous programmes, one-off or one-shot programmes like the proposal of the hon. Member for Dagenham, and earned regularisation programmes. The trend is towards earned regularisation for people who have been in the country and in work for some time.

The matter is highly controversial, as the hon. Gentleman said. The arguments go both ways. Some say that regularisation in effect encourages more irregular migration. I have not found that to be the case. Spain was mentioned, and I was in Madrid in February to talk to politicians of all parties, trade unions and employers. They believe that the one-shot regularisation programme introduced two years ago, which is now coming to an end and has regularised nearly 600,000 people, has not had any impact on encouraging more irregular migration. On the contrary, the issue in Spain, which came as a surprise to me, is that although we have all seen the tragedy of the boat people arriving on Spain’s southern shore and the islands, that is a tiny fraction of the migration problem in Spain. Most of the people who come to
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Spain have a right to do so because they are of Spanish extraction. They come from south America on work permits or student permits, get jobs, overstay, and are therefore irregular migrants. Regularising the people who are there is completely irrelevant to that situation, in my judgment.

Mr. Hollobone: I am following my hon. Friend’s comments on Spain with interest. Spain has had, I think, six regularisation programmes since 1985. As in the case of Italy, year after year the number of people on those programmes has increased, from 44,000 in 1985 to 700,000 in 2005.

Mr. Greenway: The reason for that is that Italy’s immigration policy is completely different to ours. In Italy, 1.4 million people have been regularised in the past 15 or 20 years, but that is the way in which it provides a route to migration and everyone knows that. We have a different policy. One has to study the facts and take the evidence, as I have done, but the idea that such an approach might be a pull factor is an argument, and one that cannot be denied. However, the push factor is the real reason for migratory flows in most of south-east Europe. One has only to look at the crisis in the Balkans to understand that. There are still some 500,000 internally displaced persons in the Balkan countries despite all that we have done with our European partners to improve the situation. One could debate the issue ad nauseam, but there is not the time to do so and I want to put the other point of view.

Some say that regularisation rewards illegality, and I understand that argument. I equally understand the concern that the longer we discuss whether or not there will be a regularisation programme, the more some people might think they should try to get into Britain so that they can become part of the amnesty. That leads me to my next point: we need to distinguish between a regularisation programme and an amnesty. None of the recent regularisation programmes has been an amnesty, which is when all irregular migrants are legalised. That is not what has happened. In Greece the regularisation programme introduced by the Conservative Government elected 18 months ago is a combination of regularising people who have earned their right to be there and have employment, many of whom came from Albania and the Balkans, and forcibly returning people who should not be there. There is a strong return policy in place. The arguments need to be balanced.

The critical issue that we must face is that, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, on the Government’s own analysis there are several hundred thousand people in this country whom there is no prospect of returning. What on earth are we going to do with and about them?

Clare Short: I have a lot of asylum seekers in my constituency whose applications have been refused and who will not leave the country. They are destitute, homeless and increasingly mentally ill. We cannot live with the increased number of people in that desperate condition. We must do something to sort it out.

Mr. Greenway: The right hon. Lady makes her point extremely well, and in many ways I have a great deal of sympathy with what she says, but I want us to face the reality that something has to be done with these people.
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My report addresses the situation across the whole of Europe, and we can lessons from what I have discovered. The report recommends a process whereby we clarify the issue, particularly in European Union countries. We need more research and a proper debate about what to do, and we need to learn the lessons and ensure that whatever a member states does, it keeps other countries informed. One reason why the Spanish regularisation was so unpopular was that it did not do that. The matter can be resolved only in the form of partnership.

As the right hon. Lady said, we also need to evaluate the humanitarian issue. I cannot for the life of me see how we can balance an argument that says, “All these people shouldn’t be here. They should all be sent back. It’s all terrible,” with the fact that we cannot do that because we do not know where some of them have come from. Apart from anything else, under Council of Europe conventions we cannot forcibly return people en masse; we must deal with each person individually. In my judgment, removal is not an option other than for people who have recently arrived. The need to strengthen our borders is without doubt, and the front door to migration also needs to be examined. We must see how the points system works and whether it provides business with a sufficient number of workers. That is ongoing.

The issue is sensitive, difficult and controversial, and we know that public opinion is not generally in favour of regularisation. What do we do about that? It has to change or we cannot defeat those people who stand for the British National party, not just in the constituencies of other hon. Members here, but in mine, too, because there are BNP candidates in rural villages in Ryedale. How are we going to deal with that? The only way is to tell the truth and establish the facts, which means that we need to debate the subject and make a quick decision about what we are going to do. The longer it drags on, the worse it will get.

Above all else, we have to put humanitarian considerations at the top of our agenda. I take great comfort from what my former colleague Keith Best of the Immigration Advisory Service has said and is doing, which proves that we can deal with the problem in a humanitarian and compassionate way across the political divide. The people affected have lives and want futures, and we must do something about it. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham on furthering the debate, and I am sure that there will be many opportunities to discuss the issue in greater detail in the months ahead.

10.14 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on getting the debate. Following the point made by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), nobody should underestimate the large number of people who feel very strongly about the fundamental injustice that is being done to twilight communities throughout the UK. We should not necessarily measure public opinion by the screaming headlines of the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail or the Daily Express. There are an awful lot of decent people out there who take a different point of view. We should not approach the threat of the BNP like a rabbit in the headlights of car; we should tackle it head-on and say that it is leading us into a disgusting, nasty, divisive society. We must stand up for an inclusive
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society that recognises the rights and needs of everybody in our community, and be prepared to invest properly in it.

On Monday morning, like other colleagues, I took part in a refugee week awareness event in Islington. The council and the refugee forum produced an excellent booklet describing not the disasters or failures but the successes of migrant communities in coming into the area, promoting cultural diversity, producing new businesses, work and educational achievements and developing the strength of inner-city London an awful lot. I congratulate everyone involved in that. We should examine the positive aspects of how migrant communities have contributed and achieved so much in our society.

Without the level of migration to this country that we have had over the past 30 years, when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham said, we have had a falling birth rate, what kind of education service, science base and transport service would we now have? An awful lot of the successes of the British economy in the past 30 years have been built on people coming here and contributing massively to our economic well-being and development.

The other side of the matter is the sadness of people having to flee from oppressive regimes, some of which we supply arms to, and the tragedy of people dying in boats while trying to cross the Atlantic to get to the Canary islands, Italy or Spain. We should develop a foreign policy based much more on human rights and an ethical dimension to deal with the problems that people are trying to flee from in the first place.

Mr. Hollobone: I am following with interest what the hon. Gentleman says. Under the proposals for regularisation, what would he do with asylum seekers whose claims were refused?

Jeremy Corbyn: That is a simplistic way of looking at it, but I will come to it in a second. I want to finish my point about the role that foreign policy can play and the need to have a better human rights records around the world.

The proposal deals with the exploitation of people in our inner-city communities. I used to be a union organiser before I came into Parliament, and I noticed that when people had no regularisation of their position in the UK, they hid. They did not join a union; they were frightened of getting a parking ticket if they had a car; and they were frightened of any authority or of going to the doctor. They were frightened in total. They were therefore grossly exploited. I recall going to a union recruitment meeting for clothing workers in Hackney in the early ’80s. It was a large meeting and the union officials gave good speeches about why those people, who all worked in local clothing factories, should join the union. Not one person said a word throughout the meeting. There was absolute silence—no questions, no contributions, no debate or discussion. Why? Because there were employers at the back saying pretty loudly, so that the people around them could hear, that anyone who joined the union or said anything would be reported to the Home Office. That was the ultimate in exploitation and that is the reality of life for people who have no regularisation.

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