Below is the text of the speech made by Caroline Nokes, the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North, in the House of Commons on 18 May 2020.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate from a more nuanced perspective than I would have been permitted just 12 months ago. I welcome the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) to his new role. The last time he and I debated immigration, it was in a debate on the previous iteration of this Bill, when he had the opportunity to intervene on me frequently—an opportunity denied to him today.
The hon. Gentleman said that we are rushing the Bill but also pointed out that it is just two clauses different from the previous Bill, which we well debated. I argue that we are not rushing the Bill. It is something that we must complete before the end of the transition period on 31 December this year. He also commented on the use of statutory instrument to change the immigration rules. That has ever been the case and often can be used for good; I highlight the example of Afghan interpreters, on which I remind my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary there is still more to be done.
Returning to the iteration of the Bill in front of us, there is no doubt that we must turn off free movement. We must uphold the outcome of the 2016 referendum, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary rightly pointed out, but I would argue that we must do that with caution, and a phased approach might give us more flexibility. This time last year, matters were very different. I was an immigration Minister seeking to find a route through a minefield at a time of record employment. I have grave fears that my right hon. Friend will find herself doing it at a time of record unemployment. Perhaps those roles that British workers have been able to choose not to do over the past 10 years will be more attractive than they were, but the omens do not look good.
We heard calls for a British land army that were repeated yesterday by Waitrose, and many thousands have responded, but few have chosen to pursue the option. One in six of the brave care workers on the frontline of the battle against coronavirus are non-UK nationals. I commend the Home Secretary on her commitment to extend visas to doctors and nurses, but what of care workers? Are they to be the Cinderella service, forgotten once again? What of ancillary staff in our hospitals, who are crucial in a war against the virus in which repeated deep cleaning is an absolute imperative. We cannot open hospitals if we cannot clean the loos.
Many in the House have experience of the Home Office —I think that no fewer than six immigration Ministers since 2016 have had a hand in trying to introduce a Bill to end free movement—but it is a machine that moves slowly. Sometimes the best laid plans to revolutionise our immigration system do not work well when introduced in a big-bang style. That is in the best of times; we are not in the best of times. We know from Home Office press releases that there are backlogs in the settled status scheme; that visa application centres are closed; and if someone wishes to renew their indefinite leave to remain, or obtain a new biometric residence card they cannot do so currently. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) responded to me on 16 March that the Home Office was planning an engagement programme for employers that would start that month, explaining that those who were not already tier 2 sponsors should consider “applying now”.
Small businesses that have no experience of the visa system need to become registered sponsors by January, or they will not be able to sponsor the visas of new employees. That includes care homes—the people on the frontline of this crisis. I wonder whether that engagement programme, which was supposed to begin in March, did indeed do so, or has it understandably been delayed? We know from news emanating from the Home Office that it is very much not business as usual, so can care-home owners, freight transporters, retailers, food processors, au pairs and childcare providers have confidence that their applications will be processed, even if they know that they need to apply “now”—that is the Minister’s word, not mine?
I hope that the Home Office has in place the resources needed to process the many thousands of applications to become sponsors that may be made by businesses that have never had any previous contact with the system whatsoever, but I would ask what bandwidth the care-home manager, frantically trying to put a ring round her home to keep residents and staff safe, has suddenly to think, “I had better apply to become a sponsor—just in case.” This is a crucial Bill, but I would like more than two words from the immigration Minister on how it can be delivered in a big-bang fashion in just seven months’ time, when history has proved that that is perhaps not the best way to deliver bold, new immigration systems.