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Resumption of hostilities

Richard Rosser on the likely challenges facing the government’s post-Brexit Immigration Bill, as it begins its route through the Lords

Geared towards ending EU freedom of movement rules in the UK, the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill has just nine clauses and is narrow in scope. In short, and following the Brexit transition period, EEA nationals will become subject to UK immigration laws and therefore covered by a new points-based immigration system – to be introduced next year.

Almost identical to the bill which fell due to last year’s general election, the current one took just six weeks to complete its Commons stages before being passed unamended at Third Reading at the end of June. Progress in the Lords will not be so rapid, and not just because of the August Recess

The Bill does not itself create the new immigrations system, as that will be done elsewhere via the Immigration Rules. But we will need to be inventive in using what limited opportunity there is to properly scrutinise the legislation. The country, and indeed the government itself, would have been far better served if more details of the new system had been put forward and left open to amending.

One thing it does include is widely drafted Henry VIII powers that would allow ministers to bring in changes ‘connected’ to the Bill, and amended arrangements on co-operation with EU member states on social security matters for those who move between countries. To be carried out by unamendable statutory instruments, these powers include modifying both existing Acts of Parliament and retained direct EU laws.

The Lords Delegated Powers Committee believes Clause 4 of the Bill presents “a very significant delegation of power from Parliament to the Executive”, while Clause 5 means “Parliament is being asked to scrutinise a clause so lacking in any substance whatsoever that it cannot even be described as a skeleton”. In short, MPs and Peers are being denied a proper say and involvement in debating and determining our future immigration policy and the ending of free movement.

This is not about the merits or otherwise of Brexit but the government’s attitude towards Parliament and its role in scrutinising legislation, including suggesting amendments that may in fact make bills more fit for purpose. So, our House will want to make its voice heard on limiting the use of such powers.

Many issues already have cross-party support, based on work already done in the Commons and likely to attract even broader alliances in the Lords. These include a time limit on immigration detention for the purpose of deportation, the automatic granting of settled status in the UK to eligible EEA and Swiss national children in care or who are care leavers, and the continuation of the existing EU arrangements on unaccompanied child refugees and family reunification.

Plus there will be some focus on the application of the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rules in the light of an apparent promise of a review from the Prime Minister, progress on the government’s commitment to abolish the Immigration Health Charge for NHS and social care staff, and exemption from the Immigration Skills Charge for NHS employers when some hospitals are now paying nearly a million pounds a year. 

The ending of free movement and the introduction of a points-based immigration system, with its general salary threshold for coming to work in the UK at £25,600 per annum, seeks to equate low pay with low skills and value. That sends a very clear message to many of the EU nationals currently working in the UK, not least those who have been keeping our health, care and other public services going during the Covid-19 pandemic. A message that we do not value their contribution. A signal also that the government does not seem to be moving away from its hostile environment approach to migrants and immigration.

Lord Richard Rosser is a Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords

Published 21st July 2020

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