David Simmonds: The Nationality and Borders Bill must ensure our immigration system is fir­­­­­m but fair

4 Aug

David Simmonds is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner and Chairman of the APPG on Migration.

I was pleased to be able to speak in the House of Commons on the second reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill last week. It is an important Bill, which aims to increase the fairness of the system to better protect and support those in need of asylum, deter illegal entry into the UK, thereby breaking the business model of people smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger and remove those with no right to be in the UK more easily.

The Nationality section of the Bill has not received much attention even though it performs the important role of fixing outdated nationality laws. This Bill gives the Home Secretary power to grant British citizenship to people who would have become British citizens if not for unfairness and exceptional circumstances beyond their control.

It provides further flexibility to waive residency requirements, to help members of the Windrush Generation and others acquire British citizenship more quickly. And it will mean children unfairly denied British Overseas Territories Citizenship will finally be able to acquire British citizenship.

I also welcome some of the measures which have been announced to strengthen the immigration system. I have personally seen, on a visit to the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, smugglers driving around offering a list of services with being smuggled into the UK in a British-plated car with a British driver as one of the more expensive options and a much more dangerous channel crossing or breaking into a lorry as the cheaper options.

This has led to some particularly hideous cases in the UK where large numbers of refugees have died in the hands of those criminals because of the way in which they are being smuggled into our country, so it is absolutely right that we do everything in our power to tackle people smugglers.

Alongside the focus on people smugglers and channel crossings, media coverage of the Bill has been dominated by the power to treat refugees differently, depending on the nature of their arrival in the UK and whether they have come to the UK directly from a country where their life or freedom was threatened.

In parallel to this power, I would like to see an expansion of safe and legal routes to ensure that those who are fleeing persecution are able to settle in the UK. I welcome the Home Secretary’s recent announcement that from October, refugees resettled into the UK will be granted indefinite leave to remain on arrival in the UK, free of charge.

The announcement of an emergency resettlement mechanism working with the UN refugee agency which will identify refugees in need of emergency resettlement from anywhere in the world and fast-track them into the UK, will cut down on bureaucracy and enable resettlement in a matter of weeks.

As I have written before, the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme has been a great British success story and we should model our response to future resettlement based upon it.  However, we must understand that we cannot undertake resettlement on the cheap. The Syrian refugee resettlement scheme was well-funded and because of the additional resources and checks, it garnered a huge amount of public goodwill and was effective in securing public confidence.

Of course, as a Conservative I completely appreciate, now more than ever, that we must be responsible in spending taxpayer’s money. We already spend an eye-watering sum of money on the asylum system; over £1 billion a year. An easy way to significantly reduce the cost of the asylum system would be to end the ban on asylum seekers working.

At the moment, asylum seekers are effectively banned from working and are forced to claim benefits. Lifting the ban would instantly see benefits paid to asylum seekers reduced considerably, tax receipts would increase as well as allowing highly qualified asylum seekers to plug gaps in areas where we are seeing significant shortages. Cutting bureaucracy like this is especially vital now as policymakers begin to plan how they will pay down the huge Coronavirus debt.

Furthermore, the Government must not shunt the cost of the asylum system to local authorities in the form of attaching no recourse to public fund conditions (NRPF) to asylum seekers. People with NRPF do not have access to the welfare system, even if they have been paying into the system through their taxes. Migrants who become destitute often receive emergency support from local councils because of the statutory duty of local authorities to support vulnerable adults and families with children in their jurisdiction, further extending the black hole in council finances.

Instead, we must work towards a system which is tough on people smugglers and criminals who seek to take advantage of our hospitality but one that ensures we extend this hospitality to the most needy and vulnerable. A system that is efficient and works for taxpayers and local communities whilst providing support for refugees and opportunities for integration.

Global Britain? The ‘New Plan for Immigration’ looks like slow progress in the right direction

24 Mar

One of the promises that helped to drive the Brexit vote was that to ‘take back control’ of immigration. Unlike the hard targets set (and missed) by previous governments, ‘control’ is as much a matter of perception as anything.

Thus since the referendum public concern about immigration has waned, even before the Government introduced its long-awaited points-based immigration system – which as we noted last year actually gives Ministers huge scope to make the actual regime as liberal as it needs to be.

But it is also why the issue of the Channel boats is so potentially damaging. Even if the total numbers of people crossing this way are small, the phenomenon is a visible symptom of loss of control. It could thus undermine public confidence in the Government’s entire approach to an extent far in excess of its actual impact. And as the Home Office shows in its new policy statement, New Plan for Immigration (NPI), small boat crossings have in any event ballooned to 50 per cent of all ‘detected irregular arrivals to the UK’ during 2020.

So something was going to have to be done. But what?

A two-tier asylum system

Of all the changes in the NPI, the most eye-catching is the creation of a two-tier asylum system. Put simply, an applicant’s pathway and odds will be very different depending on whether or not they reached this country via legal means. From Chapter 4 of NPI:

  • “Ensure those who arrive in the UK, having passed through safe countries, or who have a connection to a safe country where they could have claimed asylum, will be considered inadmissible to the UK’s asylum system;
  •  Seek rapid removal of inadmissible cases to the safe country from which they embarked or to another safe third country;
  • Introduce a new temporary protection status with less generous entitlements and limited family reunion rights for people who are inadmissible but cannot be returned to their country of origin (as it would breach international obligations) or to another safe country;”

Or as described from the perspective of of the lobby group Refugee Action: “…these reforms punish refugees simply for how they enter the country, creating an unjust “two-tier” system of refuge.”

But the Home Office’s logic makes sense. Dismantling people-trafficking networks is a complex and time-consuming business, but an elementary step is taking away the prize that criminals use to persuade people to pay for their services. It is also fair to point out that anybody crossing to the UK from France is already in a safe country in which they could claim asylum – and has almost certainly passed through several more.

Carrot and stick

NPI backs up this bifurcation of the asylum process with both carrots and sticks – although being a Home Office document, the ratio favours the sticks.

On the carrot side, Chapter 2 sets out various ways in which the Government aims to “strengthen the safe and legal ways in which people can enter the UK”. These include making the system more flexible so it can adapt to emerging crises, giving the Home Secretary new means to help people “in extreme need of safety”, more integration support, and efforts to help applicants who actually qualify under the points-based system to immigrate that way.

The sticks are more numerous, and set out in greater detail in subsequent chapters. The central features are reforms to the appeals process to prevent failed applicants and their lawyers gaming the system, plans for offshore processing of claims, measures to improve the rate of removal for Foreign National Offenders (FNOs), et al.

Appeal reform is the bit that’s likely to really rile the lawyers. From Chapter Five: “Our end-to-end reforms will aim to reduce the extent to which people can frustrate removals through sequential or unmeritorious claims, appeals or legal action, while maintaining fairness, ensuring access to justice and upholding the rule of law.” According to NPI, this will be effected by introducing a ‘one-stop’ system, which basically means that an applicant must present all their potential grounds for staying in Britain at once, instead of appealing on one and then another if that appeal fails.

Citizenship reform: a missed opportunity

Chapter 3 outlines “reforms we will make to British Nationality law will finally address historical anomalies”. But it ducks the bold, comprehensive overhaul this area really needs.

Giving the Home Office more flexibility to waive the rules which saw Windrush victims barred from claiming British citizenship because the Home Office had locked them out of the country are obviously welcome and overdue. So too is giving the Home Secretary “an ability to grant citizenship in compelling and exceptional circumstances where there has been historical unfairness beyond a person’s control”, although the acid test of that will be whether the various Commonwealth servicemen fighting to stay here qualify for such an intervention.

But despite boasting in the foreword about the Government’s bold decision to create a new pathway to citizenship for Hong Kongers with British National (Overseas) passports, Patel makes no mention of reducing the excessive hoops that such people need to qualify for residency and citizenship in the UK compared to other Commonwealth nations such as Canada. Nor has she taken the opportunity offered by the move on BN(O)s to offer the same generous treatment to the relatively small number of people with other forms of second-class British citizenship, such as British Overseas Citizens.

I recently teamed up with Andrew Yong of the Global Britons campaign to write a paper for the Adam Smith Institute setting out some concrete, practical steps the Home Office could take to put some meat on the bones of the ‘global Britain’ rhetoric. It’s unfortunate that the Government has decided, for now, to continue to render people with British passports effectively stateless.

Will it work?

Politically, the most salient part of this report will be the parts focusing on asylum overhaul. Whilst NPI doesn’t include actual criteria by which it could be judged a success or failure, two obvious potential pitfalls spring to mind.

First, the UK is currently bound to a web of international commitments and legal obligations in this area, and the proposals will doubtless be subject to legal challenge. A thought which might lend some urgency to the Government’s parallel overhaul of judicial review.

Second, there’s the simple question of enforcement. Shiny new processes won’t add up to much if people continue to simply abscond. The introduction of immigration concerns as a new ground for refusing bail, and plans to expand the ‘asylum estate’ and reduce reliance on off-site facilities such as hotels have clearly been included with this in mind.

Ascension Island: a leak that tells us more about the inside of the Home Office than government policy

1 Oct

What have we learned from the recent rash of stories about Priti Patel’s decision to investigate setting up migration and asylum processing facilities on some of the UK’s more remote Atlantic possessions, St Helena and Ascension Island?

On the face of it, not all that much. Australia’s immigration system has loomed large in the British imagination for ages, and apart from the totemic ‘points-based immigration system’ one of the central planks of that system is offshore processing – in Australia’s case on the Manus Islands in Papua New Guinea and the tiny state of Nauru.

From the Government’s perspective, such a system has its advantages. It makes it harder for people in the system (or especially, who have been rejected) to slip the net and disappear into the population. It might perhaps also avoid complications that arise from trying to turn people away who have actually made it to British soil. And it is also, apparently, pretty popular with the public.

Even better, from the perspective of trying to find ‘wedge issues’ on which to fight the culture war, the plan has outraged all the right people. One doubts ministers will be too upset at headlines of the Opposition accusing them of being too tough on immigration.

Another reason we haven’t learned much is that this isn’t going to be official policy. The Ascension Island plan, like the more outlandish stuff about ‘wave machines’, was only ever a suggestion being explored, rather than a concrete proposal. Even without objections in principle, those particular toeholds of the Empire are likely too far away to be practical (although the Daily Mail reports that nearer-hand offshore options, including some of the British Islands or even disused ferries and oil rigs, were also considered).

It is almost inevitable that any ‘blue-sky’ thinking session is going to produce ideas that are impractical, embarrassing, or both. Indeed, if it doesn’t then people probably haven’t been getting into the spirit of the exercise. What we have learned, therefore, is that someone in the Home Office has decided to leak this stuff to the press.

One can just about imagine the Overseas Territories proposal being leaked by someone trying to look tough on immigration, but the presence of the rest suggests it wasn’t someone with Patel’s best interests at heart. This won’t do anything to improve the already fraught relationship between the Government and its officials.