Below is the text of the speech made by Nick Thomas-Symonds, the Labour MP for Torfaen, in the House of Commons on 18 May 2020.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like to start by thanking the Home Secretary for our briefings in recent weeks, which have been very important throughout this crisis. I look forward to them continuing in the weeks and months ahead. We meet today during a public health emergency that has shone a light on deep inequality and unfairness in our society, and that has shown the extraordinary value of what so many workers do for our families and our communities.
The Bill fell at the general election and has now been brought back to the House for the second time. Looking at the text of the Bill, we see that little has changed—it now has nine clauses rather than seven—but what has changed dramatically are the circumstances in which we debate it.
On a Thursday evening at 8 o’clock, we clap for our carers. Millions of people come to their doorsteps to say thank you. Quite rightly, we are showing our appreciation for our NHS workers, our care workers and all our frontline workers—police, fire, all our emergency services, those in our shops and those out on our roads driving supplies up and down the country—who are putting themselves in harm’s way day after day to keep us safe. They are making sacrifices in order to help others. We are rightly proud of them and we honour their bravery and courage, yet in the midst of this crisis, the Government are putting forward an immigration system containing a salary threshold of £25,600. That sends a signal and tells people that anyone earning less than that is unskilled and unwelcome in our country.
We on the Opposition Benches know that people are not being paid the value of what they do, and that what our frontline workers earn does not reflect what they contribute to our society. Many of us did not need reminding of that, but it seems that the Government do need reminding. Those who clapped on Thursday are only too happy to vote through a Bill today that will send a powerful message to those same people that they are not considered by this Government to be skilled workers. Are our shop workers unskilled? Our refuse collectors? Our local government workers? Our NHS staff? Our care workers? Of course they are not. Government Ministers who were out clapping for the 180,000 EU nationals in the NHS and the care sector on Thursday night are sending a message tonight that they are no longer welcome. That is not fair, and it is not in the national interest.
A labour force survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that 69% of EU migrants who currently work in the UK would not be eligible for a visa under the Government’s new immigration system. It found that 66% of EU workers in the whole health and social work sector and 90% of EU workers in transport and storage would be ineligible—the very people who are keeping this country running right now. Four in five EEA employees working full time in social care would be ineligible to work in the UK under the skills and salary threshold the Government want to impose. The average salary for care workers is £19,104, leaving many short of the cap, and there are 115,000 workers in our care system who are EU nationals.
I will give Members an example. This is somebody who did not want her name mentioned, but these are her details. She is an EU migrant, and she is 62. She came to the UK in 2013 and has been working as a live-in carer ever since. She is a 24-hour live-in carer for a 96-year-old lady with dementia. On her earnings last year, she would have no chance of coming to the country under the Government’s new rules. Are we to believe that a 24-hour live-in carer is in low-skilled work? That is what the Government want us to believe.
The care sector in England was not properly prepared going into this crisis and it seems that no lessons are being learnt from that lack of resilience and that lack of proper preparation before the crisis began. One would think the Government would have learned the lesson about not leaving people vulnerable in our care homes, but it seems they have not. Indeed, they want to create conditions where the situation could become even worse. In England alone, 66,000 NHS workers are EU nationals and there are 40,000 nursing vacancies, which will be exacerbated by the income threshold.
The Home Secretary talks about a fast-track visa, but it is not on the face of the Bill and, in any event, it does not include social care. No wonder the Royal College of Nursing says that the Government’s current proposals for the immigration system will exclude some health and care workers from entering the UK, primarily social care staff, and will have a devastating impact on the health and social care sector. No wonder the British Medical Association says:
“Any changes to the UK immigration system, which could deter those who may want to work in the UK, risks having significant implications for the staffing of health and social care services, quality of care and patient safety in the future.”
The truth is that the Government have not won the trust of our most vital service at this crucial time, yet rather than reflect on that they are attempting to rush this through Parliament and ask that we trust they will do the right thing by the health service. We all know that you cannot trust the Conservatives with the NHS. When it comes to the health service, if asked to choose between the RCN, the BMA and Unison on the one hand, and the Conservatives on the other, I know who I would choose every time.
Let us be clear: the Bill allows the Government to create a new system through statutory instrument. Ministers are asking this House for a blank cheque, for the trust of Members to go away and implement a new system, and for an Executive power grab that reduces the role of this House in shaping it. The Lords’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report on the 2017-19 Bill expressed concerns about the wide scope of the powers:
“We are frankly disturbed that the Government should consider it appropriate to include the words ‘in connection with’. This would confer permanent powers on Ministers to make whatever legislation they considered appropriate, provided there was at least some connection with part 1, however tenuous”.
The words “in connection with” are in the new version of the Bill and the situation is unchanged.
In recent weeks, we have seen the confusion and chaos caused when the Government act like they are giving Executive orders outside Parliament without proper scrutiny. The Government should not make the same mistake again when it comes to an issue as important as our future immigration system. Scrutiny makes for better Government decisions and should be welcomed, not shunned.
Let me take this opportunity to say that the 1.2 million British-born people living in the EU27 should be protected and that the 3 million EU citizens living in this country are welcome and are valued here: our families, our friends, our neighbours. They are a central part of our communities and our society. They have brought great benefits and make us a richer, more diverse society. But I am only too aware that warm words are not enough. The deadline for the EU settlement scheme will fast approach. The default position is that anyone who has not applied by the deadline will lose their legal residence status here in the UK unless they have a good reason not to have applied. The Government must act, be open on the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the system, and do all they can to ensure that those who are eligible for the scheme apply and have their applications swiftly processed.
The Government plan for the future immigration system was first set out in the White Paper published in December 2018. How different things were then. The Government talk of a points-based system; what they actually propose is an income-based system. Salary is not a proxy for the level of skill and a salary-based system will not work for incentivising high-skilled migration.
The Government have deliberately held down public sector wages for a decade, and if they do so again, the gap between what people are paid and the value of their contribution to our society will only widen. This does not reward work and is unfair. Try telling the careworkers in my constituency or, indeed, any in the land that their work is unskilled.
Fairness will be at the heart of the amendments that the Opposition will press in Committee. We know what happens when a Government lose sight of fairness and the national interest in our immigration system. Wendy Williams’s “Windrush Lessons Learned Review” was published only a short time ago. The Home Secretary referenced the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). That review makes for sobering reading, saying:
“Members of the Windrush generation and their children have been poorly served by this country. They had every right to be here and should never have been caught in the immigration net. The many stories of injustice and hardship are heartbreaking, with jobs lost, lives uprooted and untold damage done to so many individuals and families.”
Never should we let something like that happen again. Indeed, there is such mistrust that the3million and other campaign groups want physical proof of settled status for EU citizens because they simply do not trust the Government’s assurances about everything being digital.
Where the system is not working as it should, the Government must act. Take, for example, looked-after children in local authority care. Currently, there have to be applications for pre-settled or settled status on behalf of eligible children by hard-pressed local authorities that are dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Given those pressures, the Government should just do that automatically, and I urge the Home Secretary to consider that. On immigration detention, we will be putting forward proposals for fairness, including an all-important time limit of 28 days.
In my first letter to the Home Secretary last month, I raised the issue of the injustice of continuing with the policy of no recourse to public funds during the coronavirus crisis for victims of domestic abuse. The Government must look at the issue of those left with no recourse to public funds. We are in a public health emergency—it is in the interests of all of us that people get the help they need.
There are also issues around NHS charges during this crisis. Nobody should have barriers placed in front of them when their work is essential in helping us all. I was appalled by the revelation over the weekend that, after all, NHS staff will not be exempt from these charges, despite their hopes having been raised by the Home Secretary, who mentioned a review. The issue has been mishandled by this Government from the start of the crisis. Additional fees for NHS staff to access the very healthcare that we are thanking them for providing is no way to mark their extraordinary service throughout this crisis. I ask the Home Secretary to think again about that review.
Having left the EU, and with the transition period coming to an end, we must have an immigration system that is fair and in the national interest. Handing over sweeping powers to the Government to create a system that labels so many of those workers who are keeping our country running day by day as unskilled is the wrong thing to do. If the Government are confident in their arguments, they should not be afraid of parliamentary scrutiny of their proposed new system. If they truly value what our frontline workers do, they will not send out a powerful signal that those who earn below £25,600 are unskilled and unwelcome. Instead, they should think again, and that is why we will vote against the Bill tonight.