The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord for securing this debate, and need to declare my own interest, as laid out in the register, as a trustee of Reset.
Given the velocity with which the incredibly narrow immigration Bill will likely be sped through this House, any and all opportunities for Parliament to provide scrutiny of immigration is to be welcomed. Without more scrutiny we seem to risk squandering the potential for a reset moment in the way that the UK thinks, debates and legislates about migration.
What could have been the moment when the Government led a discussion about the deeper purpose of our migration system has become instead one that underlines the persistent and escalating centralisation of policy by successive inhabitants of 2 Marsham Street. This trend has also resulted in the Immigration Rules becoming infamous in their complexity, as the Law Commission has recently highlighted.
Improving immigration procedures means making them simpler and more open to parliamentary scrutiny. Only then can we hope to secure a future system animated by a shared sense of purpose and focused on human dignity.
This is not to say that the reflections on purpose are entirely absent from the current discussion. The White Paper is not without its problems, but it sets out some of what the Home Office thinks migration is for. In particular, it is to be welcomed that the rhetoric is beginning to move beyond arbitrary targets.
However, given that the focus of this debate is on opportunities for improvement, I want to focus on the ways in which crude policy levers continue to be confused for a deeper purpose and risk jeopardising other policy objectives. For example, we see this in the proposed short-term worker visa proposed in the immigration White Paper. A 12-month “cool down” period would create a churn of workers, hurting businesses and integration. The National Conversation on Immigration found that while people were often sceptical about immigration, they would much prefer newcomers to settle in a community and integrate, and not constantly churn. At the moment, our procedures prioritise making immigration undesirable to certain groups over and above making immigration desirable to local communities. There is a conflation of “control” with “making life difficult for those considering migrating”. We need an immigration policy led by the needs of communities and the personhood of migrants.
At the heart of current policy-making is confusion over what we mean by “contribution”. The current system operates on a reductive logic that equates contribution with “how much you are paid”. The White Paper’s proposed £30,000 threshold is a strange measure of what it means to be skilled. I worry about parts of the country whose economies rely on immigrants but where jobs paying £30,000 are rare. This proposal will result in communities such as many of those in my own diocese of Durham and regions such as Cornwall, Cumbria and Lincolnshire experiencing immigration almost exclusively in the churn of short-term worker visas. What will this do to how different parts of the UK think and feel about migration? The contribution of immigrants must be better defined and widely experienced. A crude financial measure simply will not work.
Today is Valentine’s Day—I think I am the first person to mention that. I also want to note the ongoing harm caused by the minimum income requirement. We hear that this is about ensuring that migrants contribute, passing over the burden that many separated families are subjected to and the well-known benefits, economic and otherwise, of a united family. This policy punishes British citizens for falling in love and deprives thousands of British children of one of their parents. How can we ensure that love, meaning and those things that make life worth living are given their rightful place in future policy-making?
Finally, on the question of meaning, I want briefly to raise the lack of faith literacy displayed in both asylum and visa application procedures. All too often, asylum claims on the grounds of religion are turned down because someone is told that they are not able to display a detailed knowledge of the scriptures. You do not need a Bishop to tell you that millions of people live lives transformed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ without being able to name the three gifts that the Magi presented to Jesus. It is their faith that matters, not their ability to answer simplistic questions. This speaks to a deeper issue around improving faith literacy in the Home Office and possibly across the Civil Service as a whole. I understand that some work on this is ongoing between the Home Office and APPG for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, but that it has seen limited progress during the past few months. Please can I ask the Minister for an update on this work?
I hope that faith literacy training across the Home Office might also alleviate some of the difficulties faced by many bishops from across the Anglican Communion as they try to navigate the application process for short-term visas, particularly as we approach the Lambeth Conference in 2020. Here, too, a better understanding is needed of what it means when a bishop and a diocese guarantee that they will care and support the visitor throughout their stay, rather than simply looking at the low income of the visitor in their home nation. We should be trusted on our promises.
I still believe that the White Paper consultation and future legislation can provide the space for a truly national conversation on the purpose of immigration and the gift that migrants can be. We still have the opportunity for a reset moment, if only we would seize it.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co Op):…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham pointed out the complexity of the Immigration Rules and the crude policy levers of these proposals. As was said, things like the financial caps cannot be left as they are; it is not realistic. I mention again seasonal workers picking crops in Lincolnshire, because they are vital. If there is a labour shortage there, it will have a disastrous effect on the local economy and in many other parts of our country; the wider UK economy will be affected. If you cannot get your perishables picked and off to the shops, markets and other companies, it is a disaster. It will ruin you and put you out of business…
Baroness Barran (Con, Minister):…I turn to the questions from a number of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. There was a lot of focus on the £30,000 salary threshold. That really is part of the conversation. As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said, salary is one factor—it was a recommendation from the Migration Advisory Committee—but it is not the only one, and that applies also to lower-skilled workers and those on short-term contracts. The right reverend Prelate raised concerns about certain parts of the country where wages might be lower. My right honourable friend the Immigration Minister held a series of round tables in preparation for the White Paper. I know that she went to Cornwall but I am not sure about Durham….
The Lord Bishop of Durham: Can the Minister confirm that she will write to me on my question about bishops visiting this country?
Baroness Barran: I shall be very happy to do that.