Immigration Bill: Bishop of Southwark speaks about reduced support for asylum seekers and new powers for immigration officers

On the 22nd December 2015 the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun spoke during the Second Reading debate of the Government’s Immigration Bill. Bishop Christopher spoke about the proposals for new powers for immigration officers and voiced concern about further reductions in support for those whose asylum claims have been refused. He also drew on his recent visit to the Calais migrant camp.

Bp Southwark May 2015The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, the Bill is the latest in a list of substantive immigration legislation that this House has considered in recent years. Since the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 we have had five further pieces of primary legislation in this area, yet Her Majesty’s Government have published no White Paper on immigration since 2002—no considered, detailed overview and proposals through which we might consider all aspects relating to immigration before embarking on major legislation. The Explanatory Notes are helpful but they are no substitute for a White Paper.

I hope that the Bill, which has now been considered in another place, will not be subject to Government amendments in this House save in those areas where Ministers are responding to concerns or amendments of your Lordships. We merit having the whole of the Government’s intended Bill before us now and I hope the Minister will give us that assurance.

Time forbids that I should discourse widely on immigration control. It is a proper function of the state but I fear that, as there is much over which we operate limited control, we find ourselves applying extraordinary effort to exclude support and consideration to persons over whom we have relative discretion. Yet the measures before us have not been quantified as getting us back to the Government’s ambition of net migration in the tens of thousands. Why, then, are they so urgent and so necessary?

The extension of immigration officers’ powers should not be in lieu of addressing declining numbers of police officers. It is true that they have powers already under the 1971 Act and that the power to seize property connected to offences unrelated to immigration when on immigration duties will be considered by many to be sensible. Whether immigration officers are selected and trained for such a purpose is quite another matter. Discussing this extension of the role of the immigration officer in criminal justice is precisely an area for which a White Paper is necessary.

The provision in Clause 17 to search an individual if the immigration officer has reasonable grounds to suspect they are in the UK unlawfully and do not have a driving licence is concerning. What could possibly constitute “reasonable grounds” for suspicion? A means of tracking irregular migrant activity is through the ways in which individuals engage in the regulated business of life—bank accounts, utility bills, rental agreements. To exclude the possibility of these may be counterproductive. It would be useful to hear from the Minister how successful such measures are in other countries.

Clauses 37 and 38 will reduce the meagre support available to those whose asylum claims have been refused. In July, the Government tabled regulations to cut support to asylum seekers by nearly a third to £36.95 a week. Before enacting these provisions we should reflect that, according to the latest statistics, under the current system, which is subject to appeal, 65% of cases are withdrawn by the Home Office or found against the department. Should we remove a right of appeal in such circumstances?

Clause 59, on regulations for the charging of civil registration fees, adding as it will to living expense, particularly for those on modest incomes, will have consequences. Will the Government consider a consolidated measure of relevant legislation following the passage of the Bill?

This is perhaps the point at which to add a personal reflection. At the end of October I visited the migrant camp at Calais. Not once were we asked for money. Frequently we were greeted. I saw the dignity and devotion of the makeshift St. Michael’s Church, I heard the terrible stories of many of those with whom I spoke and I witnessed the energy of those who had fled there. These were people of courage and vigour, and often victims of harm. I trust that the Government will act to address these and other concerns of noble Lords.



Lord Bates: [extract] My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who participated in this debate. It has been a passionate debate, enhanced by the level of first-hand experience and knowledge that noble Lords have in dealing with these very difficult issues.

I will start with an issue that came up quite a few times. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and a number of other noble Lords mentioned the process by which we have got here, so I will deal with that before I go on to policy. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark also touched on this. The question was asked: on what basis of evidence are we acting here? What is the basis on which we are legislating? Of course, we have the evidence from the Immigration Act 2014, which the coalition Government took through the House. A lot of the proposals in this Immigration Bill are an extension of areas covered in that Act. We have had the opportunity to see how that has worked in practice over the past couple of years.