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6.44 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is the third immigration Bill on which I have spoken since I became a Member of Parliament four years ago. I have a suspicion that I will be serving in Committee; I shall bring to bear the collective knowledge that I have collated in the past four years. Although this debate is not particularly well attended, it is nice to have heard so many differing views put so sensibly by colleagues on both sides of the House. Discussion of immigration is often heated. It is incumbent on us to discuss it with passion, yes, but also moderately.

I did not go into politics to become an immigration officer. I help people with their immigration cases, but I believe that the job would be better done by people at the Home Office. Like all Members here today and many who are not, I am terribly concerned about how long it takes to process immigration cases. It can take many years for a case to be concluded, and I do not think that that is fair on those who seek to remain in this country. We need to speed up the process—to be humane, if nothing else—and when people are denied the right to remain here, they should be removed quickly. If people are to have confidence in the immigration system, they have to know that it works and that a refusal will mean that the relevant person will be required to leave the country. Too often, people feel that a refusal basically means that the person concerned just disappears into the ether, never to be seen again. We need a quick and humane immigration system.

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Unlike the Minister, I am not an expert on immigration, and I know that words are easily said. However, I hope that the Minister’s Government and any future Government will bring additional resources to bear on the issue. As a great nation, we owe it to our citizens to control and manage our borders. There has been great concern in my constituency, and in those of many other Members, about the porous nature of our borders. I am a great supporter of the idea of a well-funded and well-resourced border police force, which would manage and control our borders. It would stop undesirable people—those who want to cause this country harm, such as some whom we have seen in the past few years—from getting into the country. It would also be aware of who was entering, and manage people’s entry into and exit from this country. When we read the newspapers and talk to people in business, we hear too often about what happens when illegal immigrants and workers are caught: the police turn up and, basically, give them a travel warrant to Croydon. Those stories may be apocryphal, but they are out there. We need to be aware of them and of the concerns that they create, and we need to address those concerns.

The Bill does not have all the answers; I do not think it a particularly good Bill. At least, however, the sentiment is there; at least we are trying to point in the right direction. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said in his opening remarks, we have, unfortunately, had eight immigration Bills in the past 13 years. That suggests that we are not getting things right. What we really need is a very good immigration Bill in the near future—but I am not sure that this is that Bill. It fills a hole at the moment, but I fear that we will be here discussing another immigration Bill in the next year or two. That might be no bad thing, because our constituents’ concerns continue, and it is incumbent on us all to address those concerns; we must not only be seen to address them, but actually address them. In that way, our constituents will see a material change in how immigration is handled in this country, in how our borders are policed and patrolled and in how people are treated once they are here.

Yes, we want to be fair; we must be fair—it is a great British trait. However, when someone is denied the right to stay here we must remove them quickly, and be seen to do so. As the Minister and my party’s Front Benchers recognise, we need settled communities that rub along well together. One of the concerns of the past few years, as immigration rates have increased, is that we have put some extreme stress on communities. That has created divisions and some unrest—not as much as some media commentators would have us believe, but there is nevertheless plenty to be concerned about. We in this place need to be alive to those concerns, because if we are not, there is another party that will play on them. I do not want to mention its name in the run-up to European and county council elections, but we know that it exists, and that it is very dishonest. It plays on people’s very worst fears, and we must not continue to create a space that allows it to prosper. I am convinced that in the next couple of days the great British people will rise up and give that party a firm thumbs down.

The Bill skates around the issue of population projections and how many people we want coming into this country. Undoubtedly, that concern needs to be addressed more fully than it is in the Bill. This country cannot grow its
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population indefinitely. It is projected that in the next 30 years we will have 80 million people living in the United Kingdom. Most of those additional 15 million people will come to the east and the south-east. I do not think that is a good thing or a sustainable model. I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), and I very much recognise his concerns about Scotland, which is crying out for people—additional human resources to allow it to grow and become an even greater country than it already is. The Bill does not make provision for that to happen, so his concerns were well placed. I would just say to him—without trying your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I know I frequently do when I am speaking in this Chamber—that when I retire I have every intention of moving up to his beautiful country and sitting on an island called Islay fishing and indulging in all that beautiful scenery. However, I am well aware that he is not looking for retirees but for able young and middle-aged people with skills.

The Bill refers to points-based systems—people earning points to come to this country. We can be a bit selfish in this country, in that we can afford to take the very best of the people who want to come here. That is a fairly ruthless approach to immigration, but it is one that we can legitimately take. The idea that immigration does not help this country is complete nonsense, and I am delighted that no Member of Parliament has put forward that thesis today. This country has undoubtedly benefited from immigration: one need only go to our hospitals and care homes to realise that. There are huge advantages to immigration, and of course we will never turn our back on those advantages.

However, we need to be selective and to understand that there is concern about a growing population and the allocation of resources, so that when people come to this country, the existing population, regardless of their race, creed or colour, should not feel at a disadvantage. When there is strife within a community, it is often the settled immigrant population that gets it in the neck most. We need to be mindful of the people already living here and ensure that we meet their needs so that they do not feel disadvantaged by immigration.

I am quite attracted by the idea of earned citizenship. I think this country is a great country—a fabulous country. It is not just a good country; it is a great country. It is truly the United Kingdom, with Great Britain in there somewhere. It is a great privilege to be able to come to this country and earn that passport, which is recognised around the world, and to be able to call oneself British, or English—or Scottish, even, if one wants to do that. The idea of earned citizenship is not a bad one; it has many merits and advantages. As we know, if we have earned something we often take greater pride in it than if it is given to us. However, I am concerned about the idea of forced volunteering. Volunteering should be voluntary. It cannot be forced on someone; it has to be something that they want to do in actively deciding to give something back to their community. Although I understand the sentiment entirely, I am not sure that it sits very well in this Bill.

If Charles Walker were Prime Minister, as he will be in a few years’ time—

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Next week!

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Mr. Walker: I could well be. If I were, what would I do to allow people to earn citizenship? I would have four simple criteria. I would require people to obey the law; most reasonable English, British or Scottish people would expect that as well. I would require people to speak the language, because someone cannot participate in the life of this wonderful country and the wonderful communities that make it up unless they can speak the language. I would want people to be able to pay their way—to put something back into this great country of ours and make a contribution through taxes to the things that we really value, such as the NHS. Finally—perhaps this is the hardest criterion to meet—I want people who come here wanting to be citizens of this country to embrace our values—not to turn their backs on their values and heritage but to embrace our values, such as tolerance, fair-mindedness, freedom to express oneself, and freedom to marry whoever one wants to marry. Those are all things that we take for granted but which make this country so special—a place that young people from around the world want to come to. Those criteria are quite testing, but not impossible. Most people should be able to meet them.

What I love most about this country is our sense of fair play. We love people who try and people who contribute. That is a truly wonderful thing. If people who come to this country are seen to be trying and contributing, we will embrace them and make them part of our communities, and they will embrace other immigrants who come here and then in turn become part of the larger community.

This is not a great Bill, and I think that we will have another immigration Bill in due course. I hope that if there is a future Conservative Government, we will have only one such Bill, or perhaps two, in a decade; to have only one would be a good start, because of course we want less legislation. However, at least the Bill points us in the right direction, and now we have to travel in that direction far more quickly and effectively than we have done in past years.

6.58 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker).

I should like to start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. She and I came to this House together in 1997. I am proud that a Member of that intake became the first female Home Secretary; and she has always been such a dignified, courteous and concerned Home Secretary.

I want to talk specifically about how the Bill affects children and families. I warmly welcome clause 57, which my right hon. Friend mentioned in her introductory speech. It is a very important clause that places a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that certain specified functions in matters of immigration, asylum and nationality are carried out

That is similar to the duty in section 11 of the Children Act 2004. It is a big step forward, and I really welcome it.

I also welcome the measures in the Bill to tackle child trafficking more effectively. In November 2008, the Government withdrew the reservation about children in the immigration and asylum system that they had made
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when they ratified the UN convention on the rights of the child. In addition, in January this year the Minister for Borders and Immigration launched the code of practice on keeping children safe from harm in the migration system. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, has also championed the cause of children in the immigration system and has recently produced a report about it.

Progress has been made on this important issue, and the clause is important, but we need to see its effects on the ground. My belief is that children in the immigration and asylum system should be treated in the same way that we would expect our own children to be treated. The way they have been treated has been a long-standing problem, but I hope that it is now on the way to resolution. There are still concerns, including about the fact that children are being put in detention centres at all. Other matters have been raised, such as access to benefits, the ability to live above the poverty line and the problems of destitute families and individuals not being addressed in the Bill. The welfare clause is needed, because there has been great concern about how children have been treated in the asylum and immigration system.

I am particularly concerned about the practice of picking up families with children in dawn raids, about which there has already been some discussion today. That has happened to very young children on several occasions in Cardiff, when people have come to their homes early in the morning. I recently heard of the experience of a six-year-old child and his mother who were woken up at half-past 4 in the morning, with seven or eight officers present to escort them to Yarl’s Wood. That caused huge upset to the mother, the child, their neighbours and the child’s school friends. I do not find it acceptable that that is how we are treating our children in this country today. I am sure that Ministers must agree with that, and I am pleased that this welfare clause is in the Bill. I hope that it will make a real difference.

In the short time for which that family have been in Wales, they have found a place in the community. The removal of a family in such a way affects the whole community. Since that incident, the child’s close friends have asked their mothers whether they will be taken away next. When the child is late coming to school, they have said, “Oh, he’s gone again. He’s been taken away again.” It has shattered the confidence not only of the child involved but of the other children who are at school with him and those in the same street. We have a duty to make our children feel that they will be brought up in the safest, most caring way possible. That means all children, including those in the asylum and immigration system. The new welfare duty in the Bill must tackle that issue.

Mr. Gerrard: I am listening to what my hon. Friend is saying and I agree with all of it. Is she clear about whether the duty in the Bill, which will apply to UKBA staff, will also apply to the staff of any contractors that are performing services for the agency? I am sure that she knows that private contractors now get involved in important parts of the immigration system, including removals.

Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend. That is certainly an important point, and I hope that the Minister will clarify it in his response.

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All children have a right to be treated equally, whoever they are. Children are children, and the children of asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers should be treated in the same way that we expect our own children to be treated. As things stand, I believe that they have been treated less favourably. I find it upsetting to think of children being snatched from their beds in dawn raids. I know of instances in which the mother was not allowed to explain to the child exactly what was happening.

The Children’s Commissioner for England raised that issue recently in his “11 Million Children” briefing. He particularly drew attention to the loss of personal possessions, which is an important point. Someone who comes to this country as an asylum seeker, seeking refuge, may have brought very few things. When they are taken away early in the morning, there is sometimes not time for them to get those things. He told tales of children losing their treasured teddy bears. I find it very concerning that that has happened. I hope that the Minister can say that all those issues in relation to clause 57 will be addressed. I know that the code of practice has been in place, so I wonder why such things can still happen.

In Wales, the Welsh Refugee Council is the lead voluntary sector agency working with refugees and asylum seekers, in partnership with the Children in Wales group, which I chair here in Westminster. In their briefing to me on the Bill, both organisations raised concerns, including about children being held in detention centres at all. In their briefing, they quoted Marcia, the mother of Michael, aged nine, as saying:

They expressed concerns about dawn raids, long journeys, children and parents sometimes being split up and children seeing their parents at their most distraught and suffering post-traumatic stress. There are therefore questions about how the code of conduct is working, and it is essential that the welfare clause does its bit.

We must consider the issue of children being in detention at all, which I do not believe should happen. As Anne Owers said in May 2008, which is not that long ago:

In the debate in the other place, it was mentioned that there are no reliable statistics about children being held in detention centres, and it was agreed that the Government would address that issue.

There are some concerns about the new welfare duty. An Opposition Member said that it was important that it should apply to UKBA staff who are placed abroad at entry clearance points and during escorted removals from the UK. The concern is that the inclusion of the words “in the UK” could leave some of the most vulnerable children who come into contact with such staff unprotected while they are outside the UK. That was debated in the other place, and I hope that it will be given more consideration here. I understand that Lord West said that it would be a matter of policy, not duty.

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We need better statistics so that we know how many children and families are going into detention, and we should make a great effort to find effective alternatives, as we discussed earlier in the debate. There are other matters that I feel concerned about, most of which have had a good airing today, such as the destitution of many failed asylum seekers and the fact that many people cannot go back to their countries of origin because of long-standing conflicts in places such as Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. I pay tribute to the campaign “Still Human Still Here”, many of whose events I have attended in Cardiff. Many of the failed asylum seekers I have met there have an enormous amount to contribute to this country, and I have been distressed by what they have had to do to get a livelihood. There are women who become prostitutes to get money so that they can manage.

There are good things in the Bill, and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration, who is going to respond, is a fair Minister. I have found him very helpful when I have taken individual cases to him. However, we have to make a decisive change to how children and families are treated in the system.

7.9 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): First, I apologise to the Home Secretary and to my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for not being present for the initial speeches. It is not like me to be absent, but I have been dealing with a matter that is pertinent to the debate during the afternoon, as the Minister for Borders and Immigration will appreciate. There is a letter waiting for him when he returns to his office. However, I apologise for speaking so late.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) because we find ourselves speaking about the same topic. The House may recall that the Yarl’s Wood detention centre is in my constituency, and I have raised several issues about it over the years. I have had run-ins with the UK Border Agency, and I may well do so again in my remarks this evening. In my view, Yarl’s Wood has worked well on behalf of detainees and it makes considerable efforts to ensure that children’s time in detention is handled as well and as effectively as possible. The conditions in which the children are kept are good, as are the educational facilities—it is just sad that they are there. I share the hon. Lady’s view—I wish that they were not. It is a difficult issue, as Conservative and Labour Front Benchers well know, but I do not believe that children should be detained. Perhaps the circumstances that I shall describe will emphasise that.

On Saturday, I went to see a family at Yarl’s Wood. The family is Sudanese—a mother with three girls, aged 14, 10 and three. They have been in this country for a couple of years—coincidentally, they lived in Cardiff, though not in the hon. Lady’s constituency. The father disappeared in Darfur and the family applied for asylum, but the application was turned down. A couple of months ago, the family were taken to Yarl’s Wood. The three girls face the inevitable prospect of female genital mutilation when they return—the 14-year-old faces it almost immediately on her return. It is impossible to describe to the House the horror and apprehension that the family feel about their imminent return and the desperate situation of the 14-year-old girl. They are in deep despair.

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