Stuart McDonald – 2019 Speech on Immigration

Below is the text of the speech made by Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, in the House of Commons on 26 June 2019.

I beg to move,

That this House regrets that the outgoing Prime Minister’s legacy will be her hostile environment policy and her unrealistic and damaging net migration target; calls for a fundamental change in the Government’s approach to immigration, refugee and asylum policy to one based on evidence, respect for human rights and fairness; welcomes the contribution made by migrants to the UK’s economy, society and culture; rejects regressive Government proposals to extinguish European free movement rights and to require EU nationals in the UK to apply for settled and pre-settled status; and recognises that a migration policy that works for the whole of the UK will require different policy solutions for different parts of the UK, particularly given Scotland’s demographic and economic profile.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate on what is such a crucial subject—the urgent need for Parliament to draw a line under a dismal decade of dreadful and sometimes disgraceful migration and asylum policies. It is sad, but the plain truth is that the Prime Minister takes a massive share of responsibility for those policies, which were driven by her awful net migration target and her ramping up of the horrendous hostile environment policies—the twin pillars of her drastic reign at the Home Office. Rather than tackling burning injustices right across the field of immigration and asylum policy, her policies created them. Yet Parliament must also take its share of the blame, because too often MPs not only failed to oppose her but actively cheered her on, and, collectively, we should put that right today.

Pretty much everybody in this Chamber knows that the net migration target is a load of utter baloney. It was a number plucked from thin air. It was utterly unachievable and undesirable from the outset. It created a numbers-obsessed Home Office pursuing ever more restrictive policies, regardless of the damage to families, our higher education system and our economy. Tens of thousands of couples were split apart and children divided from their parents.

Universities were put at a competitive disadvantage not just by more restrictive immigration rules, particularly regarding post-study work, but by the message that was sent right around the globe. Small and medium-sized businesses were effectively excluded from recruiting from beyond the EU. The net migration target and its relentless failure problematised and politicised immigration numbers and has substantially contributed to the political mess that this country is in today.

Last week, the Home Secretary described the net migration target as “crude” and said that it should be ditched, and he is 100% right. Nobody with a brain cell could demur from that view, yet for years this Parliament failed to stand up to that nonsense. Every quarter, a new set of immigration statistics would be published showing the target missed by a country mile—yet again. The Official Opposition would table an urgent question, not to attack the stupid target but to criticise the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat coalition for failing to meet it. In response, the coalition would pledge to get tougher still. What a dreadful climate—a three-party ​bidding war on who would be better at clamping down on migration to reach an arbitrary number. We must never return to those days.

It is good that the Home Secretary wants to ditch the net migration target, but it makes sense to ditch the hostile environment along with it, as the two are inextricably linked as a package. If one does not make sense, neither does the other. Alongside endlessly restricted visa rules, the hostile environment was a truly wicked means by which a net migration target would be achieved. However, as the independent chief inspector has pointed out, the Home Office never lifted a finger to monitor the impact that the hostile environment was having.

I want to focus on one key component of the hostile environment: the right to rent scheme. These measures have

“a disproportionately discriminatory effect, and I would assume and hope that those legislators who voted in favour of the scheme would be aghast to learn of its discriminatory effect”.

Those are not my words, but the words of Mr Justice Martin Spencer in the High Court, who in ruling the whole scheme unlawful went on to say:

“Even if the Scheme had been shown to be efficacious in playing its part in the control of immigration, I would have found that this was significantly outweighed by the discriminatory effect…In these circumstances, I find that the Government has not justified this measure, nor, indeed, come close to doing so.”

That is a hostile environment in a nutshell: no evidence that it achieves anything positive, hugely discriminatory, totally unjustified and illegal. I trust that legislators who voted in favour of it are aghast. We should tell the Home Office today to accept that ruling instead of appealing it on the shameful grounds that the discrimination can, in some way, be justified.

It is fair to say that we were all aghast when we saw the hostile environment at its most vicious—the utter scandal of Windrush. Yet here we are still waiting for the lessons-learned review and waiting for it to be published in the very near future. As I have said before, it would be charitable to the Home Office and to the Prime Minister to say that they were reckless about the effect that the hostile environment would have. At worst, they took a conscious policy decision in the knowledge that there would be collateral damage, but deemed it acceptable. Warnings from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and many others went unheeded. Concerns expressed by high commissioners from the Caribbean were ignored. The impact assessment for the Immigration Act 2016 did everything but use the term “Windrush children” when explaining its likely negative impact. The Government ignored every single one of these warnings. The outgoing Prime Minister simply pressed on with ramping up the climate of checks at every turn, fully aware that it would be often close to impossible for many Windrush children, and others, to prove their legal position. Jobs and homes were lost; people were detained and removed. Statues and annual Windrush celebrations will not wash. A more fitting response would be to end the hostile environment that caused so much harm and hurt to the Windrush generation in the first place.

Contrary to what we have heard from too many on the Government Benches, this was not just one sad and isolated administrative error that could be quickly rectified. The disastrous impact of the hostile environment—essentially a half-baked, back-door ID card—does not ​start or end there. Its victims are a huge and varied group: the 9 million British citizens without a passport who struggle because 43% of landlords and landladies say they are less likely to rent to such citizens, now that the hostile environment has made them petrified of getting right-to-rent checks wrong; the thousands of children who are unable to afford the citizenship they are entitled to or the leave to remain that they qualify for; the children who do have leave to remain but who are brought up in families with no recourse to public funds; the hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Eritreans who were wrongly refused asylum on the basis of the Home Office’s dodgy country guidance, many of whom are now street-homeless and destitute; and the several thousands of students wrongly caught up in the Test of English for International Communication teaching scandal who were wrongly presumed guilty after the company that messed up the testing in the first place was then allowed to clean up its own mess.

Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will remember that a little while ago I raised the issue of constituents of mine who do not possess Android telephones, and therefore have to make a 500-mile round trip to the document scanning centre in Edinburgh. The Government say that it will be possible to do complete the process on an iPhone within the year, but the point is that broadband coverage in parts of my constituency is patchy to say the very least. Does that not mean that people who, with the best will in the world, would like to remain are being hampered in their efforts, which will in turn hit businesses in remote parts of my constituency that depend on EU nationals?

Stuart C. McDonald

I agree wholeheartedly. I will come shortly to the issue of the 3 million EU citizens in the UK and how we risk repeating some of the mistakes that were made when the Windrush scandal broke. I just want to finish the list of those who have already been affected by the hostile environment, which includes the people who the Home Office agrees have been victims of trafficking, but who it does not think even merit a short period of leave to remain. The list of people impacted by the hostile environment goes on and on.

Douglas Ross (Moray) (Con)

The hon. Gentleman said he would come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). Will he also use this opportunity to clarify for anyone watching this debate that cases of constituents needing to travel 500 miles will happen only during the initial trial phase, and that when the full scheme is rolled out people will be able to complete the process through the post office or—[Interruption.] SNP Members are shouting, but we have to put both sides of the story so that we do not unnecessarily raise alarms when there are other methods that people can use to apply for the scheme.

Stuart C. McDonald

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair enough point, but the Home Office still has to do more to make the EU settlement scheme as accessible as possible. I will return to these points in due course.

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)

My hon. Friend does an excellent job on the Home Affairs Committee. Does he agree that the hostile environment is alive and well today in Glasgow, with the Home ​Office contractor Serco threatening to make 300 asylum seekers homeless, after they have been labelled as failed asylum seekers? This is a perfect example of the hostile environment and hostile action in the city of Glasgow.

Stuart C. McDonald

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. I look forward to supporting his Adjournment debate on the issue tomorrow. I will shortly come to the asylum system as a whole, as it is one area where we need absolute root-and-branch reform.

Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)

On the subject of the hostile environment, does my hon. Friend share my horror at a document that I found yesterday on the Government’s website relating to trafficked women from Nigeria, which says that

“trafficked women who return from Europe, wealthy from prostitution, enjoy high social-economic status and in general are not subject to negative social attitudes on return”?

Does he agree that this is abhorrent language, and that the Government should immediately change this documentation and this attitude?

Stuart C. McDonald

My hon. Friend’s point speaks for itself. That is truly abhorrent.

The Prime Minister’s explicit and almost dystopian goal was to create the hostile environment, as if we can hermetically seal off the wicked illegal immigrants while the rest of us go about our business as usual. It was an approach that reached its absolute nadir with the horrendous “Go Home” vans—a disastrous episode that encapsulated everything that is wrong with the policy and precisely illustrated the key point here, which is that the hostile climate that the Government seek to create affects every single one of us. The hostile climate should be destroyed with its partner in crime: the net migration target.

I have outlined the sad legacy of the outgoing Prime Minister on migration policy. With her departure and influence totally removed from the Home Office, this is a time for radical reform, including rolling back most of her policies and putting evidence-based policy making, human rights and fairness at front and centre.

Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)

As part of that change in policy, would the hon. Gentleman agree that we have to look at lifting the ban on genuine asylum seekers being able to work and contribute to the economy of the country, rather than forcing them to live on a pittance and not giving them the dignity they deserve?

Stuart C. McDonald

I wholeheartedly agree; I know the hon. Lady has tabled an amendment to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill on that subject, as we did during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016, so her amendment will have our wholehearted support. I was pleased to be at an event yesterday evening with a coalition of organisations working towards that goal, and I hope the Home Office is listening.

In fairness, there have been little green shoots of recovery under the new Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister. I have welcomed the work to extend the resettlement scheme, for example. There have also been warm words on other possible areas of reform, but they are as yet a million miles away from the fully fledged reform agenda and actions we need.

Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)

Many people come to see me in my surgeries about family visit visas. The hostile environment is extending to such a degree that people cannot bring their family members over for a visit, because there is a presumption that they will stay once they are here. The Home Office is so bogged down in its attitude towards anybody who wants to come to the UK that we are not able to make progress. Should there not be wholescale reform of the system?

Stuart C. McDonald

There should indeed be wholescale reform of the visit visas and related decision-making processes. Families find themselves in a particularly horrendous position because the family visa rules have been tightened so much that so many family members cannot come here permanently. But when they come to visit, they are then accused of coming here under false pretences in order to stay deliberately, so they are in a Catch-22 situation. I will return to family visas in a moment. The point I am trying to make is that if we do not learn the lessons from these disastrous mistakes, we are bound to repeat them, and there is a serious risk that the Government are going to do just that with the 3 million EU citizens.

As an increasing number of voices across the House—including the Home Affairs Committee—have said, the EU settled status scheme has a fundamental flaw at its heart. Even with the best will in the world and even with the Home Office pulling out all the stops to try to make the scheme work, hundreds of thousands of EU nationals in this country will not be aware of or understand the need to apply. They will lose their rights overnight and will be thrown even deeper into the hostile environment than the Windrush generation. The Government must therefore enshrine the rights of EU nationals in law, leaving them to use the settled status scheme as a means of providing evidence of status, rather than actually constituting the status itself. The Home Office must listen; otherwise this Parliament will have to make it listen to protect our EU citizens from the same disastrous fate as the Windrush generation.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP)

The situation is even worse for seasonal workers who are not permanently settled here, is it not? The whole hostile environment attitude has driven perhaps the most stupid policy from this Government, who will ask 60,000 seasonal workers—essential labour—from the European economic area to go home and then perhaps invite 2,500 of them back on an expensive pilot scheme to do the work that the 60,000 people did previously. Has not this whole attitude just delivered some of the most sclerotic policy making that any of us can remember?

Stuart C. McDonald

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. The Government have shown such a tin ear to calls from across the House to implement a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Our answer to that problem is, of course, continued free movement plus a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, and we look forward to the Government actually listening to all those calls—not just from political parties here, but from the industry itself.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)

I want to take the opportunity of the Minister being here to intervene, because the Scottish Affairs Committee ​has been looking at the very issue of seasonal workers. We have found that the hostile environment is having an impact on a Government pilot by making it as difficult as possible for visas to be secured in a Government pilot scheme. The Government are asking for extra fees—over and above—to get people here to see whether they can work in the Government pilot. Does not that that just demonstrate the excesses of the hostile environment—that it even applies to Government pilots?

Stuart C. McDonald

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I commend the work that his Committee has done in this area. It would be useful if the Home Office paid close heed to it.

I have discussed what we need to do to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Windrush generation.

Douglas Ross

The hon. Gentleman is outlining some concerns about the implications of people not applying for settled status. Does he therefore take exception to his SNP colleague, an MEP for Scotland, publicly saying that he will not apply for settled status and in that way encourage others to follow suit, which may see them fall through the gaps?

Stuart C. McDonald

Every individual must make their own call about whether they want to apply. I, for one, would certainly encourage all my constituents and all the EU nationals watching this to sign up for the scheme, but that does not take away from my essential point that they should not be asked to apply to stay in their own home in the first place. These rights should be enshrined in law right now.

It is not just in terms of the 3 million that we need radical change. All across the field of immigration, there is a massive job of work to do to help to fix the lives that have already been messed up by migration policies and to ensure that we avoid messing up so many more—to build a system that actually benefits our economy and society instead of undermining them and sowing division. Everyone in this House will have had many cases, as we have already heard, where we think that the rules are unfair.

This debate provides an opportunity to make the case for reform as we look ahead to the next chapter in immigration law form. I want to mention four areas very briefly, but there are a million more that I could flag up. First, I turn to the issue of families, which has already been raised. In pursuit of the net migration target, this country has adopted almost the most restrictive family rules in the world, with an extraordinary income requirement and ludicrously complicated rules and restrictions on how that requirement can be met. Over 40% of the UK population would not be entitled to live in this country with a non-EU spouse. The figures are even worse for women, for ethnic minorities, and for different parts of the UK. The Children’s Commissioner previously wrote a damning report about the 15,000 Skype children—there must now be many, many more—who get to see their mum or dad only via the internet, thanks to these rules, which force too many to pick between their country and their loved ones. It is appalling that the Home Office seems determined to extend these rules to EU spouses so that many more thousands of families will be split apart. We should be ditching these awful rules, not making more families suffer.​

Secondly, there is citizenship. I have met with the Minister representatives of the Project for Registration of Children as British Citizens, and I know that last week she met the organisation, Let Us Learn. The Home Secretary has acknowledged in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that over £1,000 is an incredible amount to charge children simply to process a citizenship application when they are entitled to that citizenship. The administrative cost is about £400, so over £600 is a subsidy for other Home Office activities. There is no excuse for funding the Home Office by overcharging kids for their citizenship. At the very least, the fee must be reduced to no more than the administrative charge. More broadly, we need to reduce the ridiculous fees that are being charged across the immigration system, especially to children.

Christine Jardine

The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point. I want to mention something that recently came to my attention at a surgery. A former EU national who is now a British citizen is concerned about the implications for them, if we leave the European Union, of the way in which the immigration laws have been written. Even though the settled status scheme might seem unclear, the situation is not clear for those who have already taken out citizenship either.

Stuart C. McDonald

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. I do not know whether she is planning to contribute to the debate; if so, she can speak more about that.

Thirdly, our immigration detention system remains outrageously bloated, and detention without time limit makes the UK an outlier in Europe. We detain too many people for too long, including many vulnerable adults, such as torture survivors, who should never be detained at all. It is a national scandal and an affront to the rule of law, as myriad reports have shown. We have had some small forward steps from the current Home Office team, but also some missteps. We need radical reform so that detention is a matter of absolute last resort and not routine.

Fourthly, there is our asylum system, which could command a whole debate in itself. There can be few areas that require as big an overhaul. We need to ensure better-quality decisions and proper financial support. We must support the wonderful coalition urging the Government to lift the ban on asylum seekers working. We need a better managed move-on period and properly accountable and funded systems of accommodation. We need a caseworking system so that we are never left with dreadful mass evictions like those we look set to see in Glasgow.

Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent series of points, particularly now that he has come on to the asylum system, which is a subject close to my heart. Does he agree that if we want to show the world that we are truly an outward-facing, internationalist country—as I believe everyone in this House would agree we are; it is part of our values—then the asylum system is in urgent need of reform to make sure that refugees are truly welcome, and to live up to the findings of the Home Office’s own recently published report on refugee integration? There is a lot we could do right now. Even in the next three weeks, we could make it possible for asylum seekers to work after six months.

Stuart C. McDonald

There is a host of opportunities to improve the asylum system. Only last week, we debated refugee family reunion rules. We have already passed on Second Reading a Bill to change those rules, yet it has been held up in the system, thanks to the Government.

I have briefly mentioned four issues, but there are a million others that other Members of Parliament will touch on, such as visas for religious workers, visit visas, lack of appeal rights, lack of legal aid, the complexities of the tier 2 system, visas for fishing vessels, visas for agricultural workers—and so on and so forth. The truth is that our immigration and asylum systems are truly in a mess.

That brings me on to the Government’s proposals for our future immigration system—their White Paper. Next to none of these issues is addressed in the White Paper at all. The bit of the immigration system that is a disaster is the bit that is being left largely unreformed. In fact, it is being rolled out so as to apply to EU nationals in future. The one bit of the immigration system that works perfectly well—free movement of people—is being annihilated. The Government have their priorities completely the wrong way round. I love free movement and my party is passionate about its benefits. We deeply regret that these amazing rights are in danger of coming to an end. All the evidence is that it is beneficial economically—for growth, for productivity and for public finances. In Scotland, in particular, it has transformed our demographic outlook. From a country of net emigration, we are now a country of positive in-migration. We have benefited hugely culturally and socially.

Of course, the quid pro quo is that we will lose our free movement rights too. I have benefited from free movement, as I know many Members in the Chamber have. I regret that this Government want to prevent future generations from enjoying the enormous benefits that so many of us have enjoyed. People did not vote to end free movement, contrary to what the Prime Minister says. This is the Prime Minister’s red line, not the people’s. Simply repeating ad nauseam that we are “taking back control of our borders” is not an argument and it is not leadership. Real leadership is looking at the evidence and saying that free movement is an enormous benefit that we should treasure and keep.

We welcome the gradual change in approach from the Home Secretary towards one-size-fits-all migration policy making. We welcome his announcement that the proposed new £30,000 threshold will be reviewed, including the possibility of regional and sub-state variations within the UK.

However, I must emphasise that this is just a small start—baby steps. There are so many other features of the proposed new immigration system that are causing huge concern. Scotland’s economy relies disproportionately on small and medium-sized enterprises. The tier 2 system is not designed for SMEs. Its bureaucracy and expense make it inaccessible for many businesses, which therefore instead recruit from the EU if they cannot do so locally. Reducing the threshold does not fix that; it simply means businesses jumping through administrative hoops and expense simply to recruit workers they could previously have recruited under free movement.

Thangam Debbonaire

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the work done by Hope not Hate and British Future establishes that the British people are behind ​what he is arguing for? Most people actually value immigration; they just want a system that is fair, accountable and transparent. That is what I believe all of us here would want.

Stuart C. McDonald

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I think that all sensible people would be behind the arguments I am making.

The other point about reducing the threshold is that it does not fix the fundamental problem that ending free movement risks a demographic time bomb for Scotland, with implications for its workforce, its economy and its public finances. The Scottish Government have proposed ways in which additional Scottish visas can help to play a part in addressing that, learning from systems such as the Canadian system. I want the Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister to engage constructively with those proposals. But ultimately the best answer to the challenges Scotland faces is continued free movement.

We need to recognise that under the outgoing Prime Minister, migration policy has gone horribly wrong. The current Home Secretary accepts that the net migration target was wrong. The High Court says that key planks of the hostile environment were discriminatory and unjustified. Let us ditch both. Let us learn from the past and not repeat these mistakes, particularly regarding the 3 million. If the new system is to work for all of the UK, it will have to include different rules for different parts of it. Let us seize this opportunity to turn over an entirely new leaf on immigration and asylum policy.