Our country deserves an asylum system that offers the public confidence that the Government are in control of it, that is fair and consistent, and that is based on showing compassion to those who are fleeing for their lives. The legislation before us today fails not only to meet those basic principles, but to address the specific challenges we face.
The Bill will not deter dangerous journeys across the English channel. Indeed, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and top police chief have said repeatedly that it will make it harder, not easier, to prosecute people smugglers. It will not tackle the 12,000-long queue of Afghan refugees loyal to Britain who are currently languishing in hotels, alongside a further 25,000 asylum seekers, at an eye-watering cost to the British taxpayer of £4.7 million daily.
Frankly, that is a shameful state of affairs, exacting an awful cost on communities and placing an awful financial burden on the taxpayer. It is caused by this Home Secretary, on whose watch we have seen a staggering 60% drop in processed claims. Since the Bill was last before this House, the amendments have changed, but so has the context. The legislation before us today must now be debated against the backdrop of the Government’s Rwanda offloading agreement, which was announced last week in a desperate attempt to distract attention from all the lawbreaking in Downing Street.
Can the shadow Minister give us a simple yes or no on whether the Labour party supports the Rwanda plan?
I can give a very simple answer: the Labour party does not support the Rwanda plan, for reasons that I am about to set out.
Labour supports all the amendments before us today that seek to mitigate the worst excesses of this profoundly inadequate and mean-spirited piece of legislation, which reflects the toxic combination of incompetence and indifference that we have come to expect from this Home Secretary. The reality is that this Bill is an exercise in damage limitation—in essence, an attempt by the Home Secretary to deal with the awful mess she has been making since she was appointed in 2019.
The clauses on offshoring, inadmissibility, differential treatment and offence of arrival are symptomatic of a shambolic Government who have completely lost control of our asylum system to the extent that they are now seeking to dump their problems on a developing country that is 4,000 miles away and has a questionable record on human rights. The Rwanda offloading plan enabled by this Bill is extortionately expensive, unworkable and un-British.
Looking first at the price of what is being proposed, it is quite extraordinary that the Home Secretary is either unwilling or unable to provide any clarity on this point by publishing the forecast cost, but the Rwanda plan is estimated to cost in the region of £30,000 per person—and that feels optimistic. Contrasting that with the £11,000 that it costs to process an asylum seeker here in the UK, we start to see the impact on the public purse.
The Prime Minister has said that he expects to send “tens of thousands” of asylum seekers to Rwanda per year, so we are looking at around £1 billion of taxpayers’
money spent by a Government who are doing absolutely nothing for British people hammered by the cost of living crisis. Then there is the £120 million in development aid. What, precisely, is that going to be spent on? Apparently it will not go towards paying for Rwandan caseworkers, so is it just the eye-watering price that the Home Secretary has paid for a press release?
Hon. Members should not just take my word for it. The Home Secretary’s own permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, stated:
“Value for money of the policy is dependent on it being effective as a deterrent. Evidence of a deterrent effect is highly uncertain and cannot be quantified with sufficient certainty to provide me with the necessary level of assurance over value for money.”
Labour agrees wholeheartedly with Mr Rycroft. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that the Rwanda plan will deter the people smugglers or the small boats, and there is therefore not a shred of evidence to demonstrate that it will deliver value for money.
To understand value for money, the Government must provide forecasts for a range of scenarios. That is why we are supporting Lords amendments 53B to 53D. The amendments provide that in order to offshore refugees to a third state, the Secretary of State must lay regulations specifying the identity of that state and have them approved by Parliament. Before the Home Secretary may lay those regulations, costings must first be laid before both Houses. It is critical that Parliament is given the opportunity to scrutinise both the offshoring and the offloading plans for value for money, particularly at a time when our constituents are facing a cost of living crisis.
If the Rwanda offloading agreement does not serve as a deterrent, then it is failing on its own terms and therefore also failing to provide value for money. But there is also a chance that the scheme may not even get off the ground as it will end up getting bogged down in the legal system. There can be absolutely no doubt that the Government’s claim that Rwanda is a safe country for refugees will be challenged in the courts given that thousands of Rwandans seek asylum in Europe every year, with 76 Rwandan citizens granted asylum here in the UK since 2017. It is well worth noting that in 2019 Israel cancelled its offloading agreement with Rwanda after it emerged that the vast majority of refugees sent to Rwanda left within days of arriving there and after it was revealed that it had led to immense suffering, including subjecting vulnerable people to human trafficking.
It is highly likely that the Rwanda offloading plan will unravel because it is both eye-wateringly expensive and unworkable, but it is also deeply un-British—because the decision to outsource our problems to a developing country halfway across the globe with a questionable record on human rights just does not feel right. It is just not the way we do things in this country. That is why we are supporting a number of amendments to bring the Bill closer to reflecting our values as a nation. Labour Members have continually made the case that the Bill must meet Britain’s obligations under the 1951 UN refugee convention, and we are supporting Lords amendment 5B, which secures this.
Our country’s historical commitment to offering safe haven to refugees leads us to support a number of the other amendments before us today. First, we support
Lords amendment 6B, which seeks to ensure that all refugees are given their convention rights and that family unity is maintained, even if the Government are determined to introduce the utterly inappropriate differential treatment aspect of this Bill, which, shamefully, contravenes the UN convention.
Secondly, we support Lords amendment 13B, which, if accepted, rather than criminalising Ukrainians and other desperate refugees who arrive here without clearance, would criminalise only those who have already been deported. We should not be seeking to create a second class of refugee. Many of these people are desperate when they arrive on our doorstep, and the Government would do well to remember that.
Thirdly, we support Lords amendment 11B, which calls on the Home Secretary to set targets for taking in a number of refugees each year and would force her to finally do some medium-term planning rather than constantly scrambling to make it up as she goes along.
Fourthly, we support Lords amendment 10B, which provides for family reunion of unaccompanied refugees in Europe.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware, as I am, that the experience of local authorities involved in the resettlement of refugee children is that the majority of those brought to the UK on the basis of reunion with family are in fact coming straight into the care system because the relations in the UK are not able to look after them? It therefore seems to me that the Government are right to resist on this point and to seek an alternative and better way of managing the resettlement of unaccompanied children coming to the UK.
There are two dimensions to what the hon. Gentleman is questioning. The first is about the capacity and the capability here in the UK. There are of course examples of where families are not able to take care of children, but I do not believe that those are the majority, and where that is the case we need to ensure that local authorities are adequately resourced to be able to deal with the issue. The second is about the Government’s approach on this. The Minister argued that it is about taking a global approach, but we can clearly see that it is much more about the hostile environment and the basic mindset in the Home Office. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. That is why the amendment in the name of Lord Dubs is absolutely the right way to go.
Fifthly, we support Lords amendment 25B, which seeks to undo the Government’s unlawful bid to, in effect, criminalise modern slavery victims who have been pushed into crime by human traffickers. We are clear that only criminals who have committed serious public order offences such as terrorism or other serious offences, as established via a Government consultation, should have their protection withdrawn.
The Home Secretary is desperately trying to clean up the mess that she has been making since 2018, and is rolling the dice on an extortionately expensive, unworkable and deeply un-British proposal. Instead of dreaming up headline-grabbing announcements and pie-in-the-sky ideas, she should listen to the Opposition’s sensible and practical solutions. First, the Home Secretary needs to invest to save, as the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), so correctly pointed out. She needs to hire more caseworkers and invest in the court system, so that we can process applications quickly and dramatically reduce the ludicrous £4.7 million a day that is being wasted on housing refugees in expensive hotels.
Secondly, on the small boat crossings, rather than dreaming up unworkable gimmicks, the Home Secretary should focus on engaging constructively with France and the European Union to negotiate a returns agreement and build effective security co-operation to combat the people smugglers. Rather than constantly seeking cheap headlines in The Daily Mail, as the Government like to do, Labour would use its stronger relationship with our European neighbours to reset the UK-France relationship, and would engage constructively to negotiate a robust migration and security agreement with the European Union. We would of course legislate to prevent people smugglers from using social media to advertise their services; that was the purpose of a Labour amendment that the Government shamefully rejected early in the passage of the Bill.
A lot has been said about the Rwanda announcement being timed to distract from partygate, but it is just as likely that the announcement was intended to distract from the litany of failures that has come to define the tenure of the Home Secretary. Over 200,000 people offered their homes to Ukrainians, and somehow the Home Secretary managed to turn this story of inspiring British generosity into a bureaucratic nightmare. Some 12,000 Afghans who so loyally and bravely served our country are languishing in hotels. We owe them a debt of gratitude, yet the Home Secretary has treated them with contempt. We have a Passport Office in meltdown, with delays ruining the well-earned Easter breaks of hard-working British families, who have been through so much over the last few years, and now we have the spectacle of this extortionate, unworkable and profoundly un-British Rwanda cash-for-offloading plan.
The Home Secretary certainly has a mountain to climb if she wishes to regain the trust of the British people, but if she were to instruct Conservative Members to join us in supporting the amendments this evening, it would at least be a start.