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Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Made Affirmative Procedure, Nationality and Borders Bill, Decision Time, OVO Energy (Redundancies)


Contents


Nationality and Borders Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

I remind members that Covid-related measures are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-03270, in the name of Neil Gray, on the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is United Kingdom legislation.

16:38  

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development (Neil Gray)

It is with sadness that I say that my first debate as a minister is about a bill that I find repugnant and regressive. I would have preferred to talk about how Scotland is striving to live up to our global responsibilities as a place of welcome and sanctuary; instead, I am talking about the UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said is

“fundamentally at odds with ... the UK’s international obligations under the Refugee Convention.”

The bill proposes significant changes to UK asylum and immigration law, and it misdiagnoses the problems with UK immigration and asylum policy. It will not achieve the aims that the Home Secretary claims that it will achieve, because it does not address the problem of the incompetent management and ideologically misdirected policy of the Home Office and UK Government.

The bill will negatively impact people, communities and the provision of services. This Government condemns the bill and the UK Government’s inhumane hostile environment. The Scottish Government developed our pioneering new Scots approach in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Refugee Council, and together with our public services, third sector and communities work, to support our vision of a welcoming Scotland where refugee and asylum seeker integration is supported from day 1.

We are ambitious about embedding human rights and trauma-informed practice to improve how we support vulnerable people, including victims of human trafficking, domestic abuse survivors and children. We recognise that we need an inward flow of people to support our economy and the growth of our businesses, to develop services and to support strong and diverse communities. We have long advocated for a flexible and humane approach to migration based on the principles of dignity and respect. All of that is in jeopardy as a result of this UK Government bill.

The bill is a long and complex piece of legislation that was introduced last July and that has been roundly criticised since. The pace at which this sweeping and regressive piece of legislation has been pursued is purportedly due to an urgent need to give the Home Secretary more powers to fix the UK’s broken asylum system. However, let me be clear: the provisions in the bill will not fix the problems with the UK asylum and immigration systems; instead, they will create barriers that will damage our communities and push already vulnerable people to the margins of society. They will add unnecessary complexity to the already challenging asylum system, restricting the rights of refugees on the basis of not their need for protection but how they arrived in the UK. Vulnerable people seeking protection will be criminalised, and push-back provisions will increase risk to life at sea.

The door will be opened to offshoring the accommodation of people seeking asylum, and there will be an increased risk of destitution, as no recourse to public funds restrictions will apply to more people. The Home Secretary will also have the power to revoke people’s British citizenship without notice, which is quite astonishing.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I am grateful to the minister for giving way, and I welcome him to his post. Does he agree that age assessment for the purposes of child protection is a devolved matter that properly sits with social workers in an ethical framework here, in Scotland, and with the Home Office in an immigration context? Does he also accept that quasi-scientific assessments to determine the age of children or young people can be invasive and risk causing further trauma and that they can, if incorrect, have the devastating consequence of having a young person returned to the place from which they came?

Neil Gray

I thank Alex Cole-Hamilton for that intervention, as it pre-empts some of what I will say almost word for word. I fully agree with his intervention and look forward to his supporting the motion tonight.

The bill’s provisions will increase the time that people spend in limbo waiting for a decision from the Home Office and unable to fully rebuild their lives. We already know that this puts pressure on people. It is detrimental to mental health, prevents people who are seeking asylum from using their skills in the workforce and restricts access to financial support unless people are destitute. That, in turn, shifts costs to our local authorities, public services, the third sector and communities.

The provisions will punish people who need protection, and they will do nothing to tackle the underlying inhumane issues with the asylum and immigration systems that the UK Government has created. If all of that were not bad enough, as organisations such as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the British Red Cross have pointed out, possibly worst of all, the bill risks creating the perfect conditions for criminals to exploit vulnerable adults and children. It does not just misdiagnose the problem; it is making the symptoms worse.

The Scottish Government’s questions to the Home Office about key issues in the consideration of legislative consent were met with delays and a refusal to accept the need for the granting of legislative consent. However, the Scottish ministers are clear that the bill will impact heavily on Scotland’s devolved competencies in a myriad of ways. Therefore, on 1 February, the Scottish Government lodged a legislative consent memorandum in the name of the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, which set out two specific clauses that trigger the requirement for legislative consent.

The UK Government has form when it comes to ignoring the wishes of this Parliament, and I fear that it will not pay heed to the memorandum—just as it has ignored our concerns, the concerns of the Welsh Senedd and the concerns of many charities and support organisations. However, it is important that the Scottish Government is clear on our position and that we raise our opposition to provisions that will impact in devolved areas as well as our overall opposition to the damage that will be caused by the bill.

Let me turn to the two clauses that are raised in the memorandum. To be clear, the assertion in the Conservative amendment that the provisions do not fall within the legislative competence of this Parliament is entirely false.

Clause 49 legislates in the devolved area of the provision of care and support under children’s legislation. The bill creates a national age assessment board, which will be empowered and resourced to scrutinise age assessment determinations—including those that are made by social workers in Scotland for devolved purposes. If local authorities refer an age assessment to the board, the outcome of the board’s assessment will be binding on them for devolved functions. That reach into devolved services clearly goes way beyond reserved matters of asylum and immigration.

The bill will enable the board to use scientific techniques as part of age assessment although Scottish Government guidance has consistently advised against that, on child welfare and unreliability grounds. That position is shared by medical experts such as the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Nursing. The United Nations Human Rights Committee describes such an approach as invasive, potentially harmful and likely to result in children being wrongly assessed as adults. Those concerns are echoed by the children’s commissioners for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The proposals are a retrograde step that will not protect the welfare of these highly vulnerable children and, in fact, could cause harm.

The second clause that the LCM deals with is clause 58, which will constrain the Scottish ministers in how any future Scottish competent authority decides who is a victim of human trafficking. It will require late provision of information in support of a modern slavery or trafficking claim to be considered as damaging to a person’s credibility.

When I consider the bill, I reflect on its basic lack of humanity and how regressive it is. The UK was a founding signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. It played a key role in developing the convention’s principles and, as recently as 2018, it reaffirmed those principles in the Global Compact on Refugees, yet those obligations are meaningless under the bill. Those are not just my views but those of the UNHCR and the opinion of legal experts who have considered the bill on behalf of the Scottish Refugee Council. That is deeply worrying, particularly as the bill sets out an interpretation of the 1951 convention that seeks, in effect, to establish the current Government’s definitions as the basis for consideration by UK courts.

There is one area where I agree with the Home Secretary—the UK’s asylum and immigration system is broken. However, the bill will not fix it. The bill could have been an opportunity for the UK Government to create a humane and fair immigration and asylum system, but that opportunity has been missed.

The bill will jeopardise the rights of thousands of people long into the future and will have a profound impact on our society. It is anti-refugee, anti-human rights and anti-democratic. I urge the Parliament to make clear its opposition to the bill.

I move,

That the Parliament notes that the UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill proposes significant changes to UK asylum and immigration legislation, which will damage people living in communities across Scotland and the UK, now and in the future; recognises that the Bill contains two provisions that trigger the requirement for legislative consent and that a legislative consent memorandum recommending that the Parliament withholds its consent to those clauses was lodged on 1 February 2022; notes that the Welsh Parliament has refused consent; is concerned by the creation of a National Age Assessment Board with powers to scrutinise age assessments using “scientific techniques”, which Scottish Government guidance advises against on child welfare and unreliability grounds; notes that these provisions will impose time limits and damaging measures affecting assessment of credibility in human trafficking applications; condemns these provisions, as well as proposals in the Bill for differential treatment of refugees based on how they arrived rather than their protection needs, measures that criminalise vulnerable people seeking protection, “push-back” provisions that will put lives at sea at risk and open the door for offshore asylum accommodation, and powers to revoke citizenship without notice, and agrees that the Bill will not achieve its aims or the change that is needed to ensure that the UK’s asylum and immigration systems are effective, efficient and deliver for people in need of humanitarian protection, according to international human rights obligations.

16:47  

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I welcome Mr Gray to the front bench as a minister. Notwithstanding the fire and thunder that we have heard from him, the real issue that is before the chamber is narrow—not that members would know that.

I will first set out what the debate is not about. It is not about whatever aspect of the Nationality and Borders Bill the Scottish National Party Government finds objectionable and simply wants to criticise. It is not about the UK Government’s general immigration policy. There was ample time for Mr Gray’s colleagues to take issue with all of that at Westminster—as they did, where they opposed the bill. If Mr Gray was still an MP, I am sure that he would have taken that opportunity, too.

Today’s debate is about none of that; it is about whether legislative consent is required from this Parliament. We are debating a legislative consent memorandum. It took Mr Gray more than half his speech before he mentioned the words “legislative consent”. The question is legal, not political. Of course, any opportunity for the SNP to give the UK Government a kicking, especially on immigration and asylum, must be taken, so here we are.

I will focus on the actual issues that are at hand. It is intrinsic to the devolution settlement that immigration and asylum policy is a reserved matter. Notwithstanding that, the Scottish Government takes issue with two clauses that it believes infringe the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish ministers.

Does Donald Cameron recognise that some parts of the devolution settlement interface with immigration policy—not least age determination on the ground of child protection? What is his answer on that?

Donald Cameron

I disagree with that in terms of the bill, and I will deal with that in due course.

I will deal with those points forensically, starting with age assessment. The Scottish Government’s memorandum argues that clause 49, which relates to the age assessment of age-disputed persons,

“will directly affect the exercise of functions exercised by Scottish local authorities and health boards under devolved legislation”.

It goes on to reference three legal judgments that were determined in English courts, which obviously are not applicable in Scotland, to justify the Scottish Government’s belief that any new Home Office policy would impact the functions of local authorities here. It is argued that provisions in the bill

“would allow the Home Office to choose to deploy”

the national age assessment board

“in a more interventionist manner which would significantly alter age assessment processes ... in Scotland”.

We do not accept those arguments for one minute.

The Scottish Government is making hypothetical arguments about how the bill may be applied in respect of the functions of local authorities. This is the realm of possibility—a world of if and maybe rather than of definitive fact. To reinforce that point, the Home Office has noted that the national age assessment board

“will be a centralised team within the Home Office that Local Authorities can use”

—I repeat “can use”—

“if they do not want to conduct their own age assessments”.

It says “can use”—it will not be forced on local authorities but will be optional. That does not

“directly affect the exercise of function”

of Scottish devolved bodies, to use the Scottish Government’s phrase—quite the reverse.

The Scottish Government also criticises the “scientific techniques” that are part of the age assessment process, despite the fact that the use of those techniques is the norm in many European countries. There is no mention in the memorandum of how that impacts on a devolved area of law or of how it is a matter of legislative competence. That is nowhere to be found.

However, I will address the substance of that criticism. Across Europe, countries use those kinds of assessments. Finland, Norway, France and Greece use a range of different age assessments to define the age of an individual, and I would submit that the UK Government’s proposals are entirely in line with those international comparators.

Will the member take an intervention?

Donald Cameron

I am sorry, but I do not have time. I will take one in a moment if I have the time.

There is a reason for those proposals: they stop abuse of the system and help those who are in genuine need. Adults who are seeking asylum should not claim to be children, nor should children who are seeking asylum claim to be adults. Those are uncontentious statements, not least because very serious safeguarding issues apply in both scenarios.

The United Kingdom Government has also said that it intends to create a scientific advisory committee that will be chaired by Dame Sue Black, who is the current president of the Royal Anthropological Institute, to oversee its work. I would say that the measures on age assessment that are proposed by the United Kingdom Government will be robust, fair and aided by the views of credible experts.

Neil Gray

The evidence that was provided by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Nursing directly contradicts the points that Mr Cameron makes about the accuracy of those assessments and says that children will be misdiagnosed as adults. Why will he not reflect on those points from our own royal colleges?

Donald Cameron

I am entirely happy to reflect on them, but I say to Mr Gray that my statements that adults who are seeking asylum should not claim to be children and that children who are seeking asylum should not claim to be adults are, I think, uncontentious. Can he not recognise the safeguarding issues that apply?

I will turn to modern slavery, which is the second area that the Government takes issue with. Its specific objection is that the bill

“would constrain any future Scottish competent authority”.

That is an extremely tenuous argument, not least because it is predicated on a future event that is unlikely—namely, the coming into existence of a future Scottish competent authority. Also, as the Scottish Government’s own memorandum notes, decisions on who is considered to be a victim of human trafficking or modern slavery

“are currently made by one of two Home Office competent authorities under the National Referral Mechanism”.

The Scottish Government then tries to argue that if—again “if”—it set up its own competent authority, clause 58 would constrain ministers. Given that no such competent authority exists or is likely to exist, and given that the Scottish Government chooses to use Home Office competent authorities, it is, yet again, using hypothetical arguments to reject the bill.

Another point that is made by the Scottish Government is that the bill is about victims, and thus the issue is devolved. Well, it is about victims of human trafficking and modern slavery coming into the country. If anything, that is about the international definition of victims and it has nothing whatsoever to do with victims in a devolved context, in terms of crime or otherwise.

To demonstrate how far the Scottish Government has strayed from issues of competence, I will read from paragraph 34 of the memorandum, which says:

“The Scottish Government does not agree that potential victims of human trafficking should have the outcome of their claim influenced by the provision of information after an arbitrary deadline and as such consent should be withheld.”

Leaving aside the merits of that position, what does it have to do with legislative competence? Nothing. There is nothing in that paragraph about how the bill infringes on the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament or ministers; it is just a point of substance with which the SNP disagrees. Those objections about competency are spurious in principle, even before we return to the salient point that the matters are explicitly reserved.

I have to confess to feeling some disappointment that, yet again, the Scottish Government has chosen to use a debate on the technicalities of a memorandum to make a partisan political point about such an issue. Practices such as the Government making flimsy claims about legislative consent or claiming that it has devolved competence over matters that are clearly reserved so that it can manufacture a new grievance are being used more regularly in the chamber. There is a wider question for the Presiding Officer and the Parliamentary Bureau about the purpose, timing, duration and nature of the debates on legislative consent memorandums.

That is not a matter for the Presiding Officer; it is a matter for the bureau. Please conclude.

Donald Cameron

I submit that the aim of the UK Nationality and Borders Bill is to strengthen existing asylum and immigration legislation by delivering a fairer and more effective system for the most vulnerable people. I hope that the Parliament will support my amendment.

I move amendment S6M-03270.1, to leave out from “notes that the UK Government’s” to end and insert:

“agrees that the relevant provisions of the Nationality and Borders Bill, relating to age assessments and modern slavery, do not fall within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament, and recognises that the UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill will strengthen existing UK asylum and immigration legislation.”

I call Elena Whitham to speak on behalf of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee. Ms Whitham joins us remotely.

16:56  

Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

The Social Justice and Social Security Committee has been holding stand-alone sessions to explore the breadth of its remit and to establish priorities for its work programme over the parliamentary session. Most recently, those sessions have focused on refugees and asylum seekers. The sessions went much broader than the subject of the LCM and focused on people having no recourse to public funds, on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, as well as on the Nationality and Borders Bill more generally.

Once it became apparent that the LCM was about the Nationality and Borders Bill, and given the likelihood that it would be referred to the committee, we pre-emptively used the sessions on 3 and 10 February to explore the LCM with witnesses. Our report, which was published yesterday, sets out that evidence in more detail. I will cover the main points that the witnesses raised with us about the bill and its impact, starting with clause 49 and age assessment.

Glasgow health and social care partnership explained that decisions about age are made by the local authority and the professional who knows the young person best. Decisions are made on the balance of probability, with a trauma-informed approach being taken to assessment. The partnership was concerned that the new national age assessment board could remove decision making from the local authority with no right of appeal or dissent.

JustRight Scotland, which provides information to help people to understand their legal rights, considered that the age assessment provisions in the bill would reach into Scottish child protection systems, because age assessments to determine eligibility for child services under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 are usually conducted by Scottish local authorities. Andy Sirel from JustRight Scotland said:

“Scottish local authorities will be compelled by the Home Office to conduct age assessments on children and young people, or pass that on to a new national age assessment board. Its decisions will be binding on Scottish local authorities.”—[Official Report, Social Justice and Social Security Committee, 10 February 2022; c 18.]

The Scottish Refugee Council was clear that it wants consent to be withheld on the Home Office age assessment arrangement.

Glasgow city health and social care partnership also raised concerns around information sharing. It argued that the new national age assessment board could instruct a local authority to share information that it might have gathered for other reasons. It considers that the Home Office should provide additional funding directly to the local authority to deliver age assessments. That would take account of the demands that are to be placed on already stretched local authorities.

On clause 58 and human trafficking, Glasgow city health and social care partnership explained to us that, currently, Glasgow is the only site for the Home Office’s devolved decision-making pilot, which seeks to identify children and young people who are at risk of child sexual exploitation and trafficking. In its experience, disclosures are often made within an established relationship of trust and when there is a sense of safety, and they might come later once a place of physical safety and stability is established. Glasgow city health and social care partnership was concerned that the bill poses a real risk of further victimising and retraumatising trafficking and exploitation victims by excluding access to support.

Furthermore, from a trauma-informed perspective, Glasgow city health and social care partnership considers that clause 58 is “wholly unacceptable”, because it requires the competent authority that is making decisions about whether someone is a victim of human trafficking to take account of late provision of information as being damaging to a person’s credibility, unless there are good reasons why the information is late.

Another issue that the partnership raised with the committee is that the bill might be discriminatory in its approach, because a greater percentage of women than of men experience human trafficking and sexual exploitation. In addition, there are concerns that the bill will reduce the number of people who are prosecuted for human trafficking and the number of victims who receive support.

Maggie Lennon from the Bridges Programmes, which supports refugees and asylum seekers, said that the bill would make it very difficult for Scottish courts to identify victims of trafficking and to work out how best to support them because the bill is based on an immigration approach. She also argued that it is against human rights.

In summary, I note that some of our witnesses had not taken an organisational view on the LCM and could comment only in general terms, while others had no relevant experience to draw on. The witnesses whom we heard from who have experience of age assessments and working with trafficking victims agreed with withholding consent for those two provisions.

However, it should also be noted that it was difficult for the committee to undertake in-depth scrutiny on the LCM in the limited time that was available. For example, the committee was not able to hear from the Scottish and UK Governments, nor was it able to investigate the legal arguments. As such, the committee agreed to draw the Parliament’s attention to the evidence that was received from local authorities and relevant stakeholders, and to note the Scottish Government’s reasons for not recommending consent to the bill.

17:01  

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I, too, welcome Neil Gray to his new role.

I make it clear that the Scottish Labour Party does not support the Nationality and Borders Bill. My UK Labour colleagues have opposed the bill; we do, too. The bill will not solve the problem of dangerous boat crossings that are putting lives at risk. It proposes unworkable solutions that will cost the taxpayer about £2.7 billion and it undermines international humanitarian conventions at a time when co-operation is needed more than ever.

In its excellent briefing, Amnesty International got straight to the point. It said:

“The draconian measures in the ... Bill will largely shut down the UK’s asylum system as it fails to provide any safe and legal routes for those attempting to seek asylum in the UK.”

It also noted that the bill will have far-reaching consequences for people who are living in Scotland under immigration control.

In their amendment, the Scottish Conservatives wash their hands of responsibility for the bill—they simply say that is outwith legislative competence. However, the Scottish Refugee Council and JustRight Scotland commissioned a legal opinion that highlights that the bill reaches into devolved competence, particularly around differential treatment based on route of arrival, age assessment, and human trafficking and exploitation. Therefore, legislative consent is required.

At the end of the day, LCMs are about respect: respect for devolution, respect for this Parliament and respect for our constituents. Avoiding scrutiny of a bill that will impact on Scotland’s distinct criminal justice system and on our specific procedures relating to safeguarding, by avoiding debate, would be wrong.

I was disappointed by Donald Cameron’s speech, because he did not acknowledge the fundamental problems with and the inequalities in the bill. He dodged around its impact on devolved responsibilities and on the need for cross-government work, whether that is between the UK and Scottish Governments or between the Scottish Government and local government.

Earlier today, the Scottish Refugee Council contacted me and urged me to ask the Conservatives some questions. It wants to know whether they have considered

“the real-life and imminent implications of what they are saying? Are they comfortable with Scottish police and prosecutors picking up an Afghan woman arriving irregularly fleeing the Taliban? Or a Ukrainian family fleeing a Russian invasion arriving without papers? Both will be criminalised as a direct result of this legislation, inhumane in itself, and a gross waste of public monies. That is what the Conservatives are supporting. They are also disagreeing with ex-Prime Minister John Major, who described, rightly, this specific ‘unlawful arrival’ offence as ‘punishment without compassion.’”

The UK Tory Government is promising that the bill will stop boats arriving and that it will return people who travel in them, despite the number of boats arriving having increased tenfold in the past two years. Border Force officials have privately said that a push-back policy for boat crossings is dangerous, unworkable and could put more lives at risk. France has refused to agree to receiving boats safely back, so such push backs cannot even happen in practice. Labour has said from the start that that is a dangerous and wrong approach. The UK Government should be doing everything that it can to stop more lives being lost; it should not be making those perilous journeys even more dangerous.

The reality is that nothing in the bill will deliver safety. It shifts the cost of UK Government incompetence on to people who are fleeing their homes for a safer life, and it undermines the international system that we have been operating under for more than 70 years.

Article 31 of the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees basically says that no one should treat a person who is looking for safety as though they are acting illegally. The principle understands that a person’s decision to leave their home and their life is not taken lightly. When someone arrives without authorisation, they should not be penalised, provided that they

“present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence”.

The Tories think that it is acceptable to give up on that foundational principle, but we have the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the continuing situation in Syria and, of course, the advance of Russian troops into Ukraine that is happening right now. How can the UK Government and its party counterparts here keep a straight face while defending the bill? The Labour Party signed the UK up to the refugee convention in 1951 and will not abandon it today.

The UK Government claims that the bill will stop trafficking gangs, but the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has explicitly said that the bill

“will severely limit our ability to convict perpetrators and dismantle organised crime groups.”

It will remove key protections for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery by rowing back on the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and it will make identification and protection of modern slavery victims more difficult. We in Scotland have to be concerned about that.

Under the bill, if the Home Office wants to remove a person’s citizenship, it will no longer need even to warn them or tell them, which is a massive worry for people across the country. Citizenship is the right to live in a country. Without it, people cannot vote and might struggle to work, access education and healthcare and look after their children.

There is a risk that ethnic minority people and refugees will be treated unfairly and become second-class citizens. That is why Labour in Scotland, Wales and England opposes the attack on refugees, ethnic minorities and international law. I call on the Conservatives to think again, to look at the impact of the bill, including its impact on us in Scotland and on our devolved competence, and to withdraw their amendment.

17:06  

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I rise to speak for my party on this most important of topics. I welcome the minister Neil Gray to his place once again and thank him for bringing the debate to the chamber. I say from the outset that Scottish Liberal Democrats cannot offer consent to the Nationality and Borders Bill.

The Iranian-American novelist Dina Nayeri, who fled the threat of execution as a child, once said:

“It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks.”

The Nationality and Borders Bill, which is close to being signed into UK law, does the opposite of that. It seeks to introduce various measures to “crack down” on people taking irregular routes to the United Kingdom, creating a two-tier asylum system that makes it harder for people to claim asylum while relegating many of those who are seeking help to being second-class refugees with fewer rights if their claim is unsuccessful.

The bill also allows for asylum seekers to be sent abroad, perhaps even back to the place that they fled, while their claims are processed offshore. The right to seek asylum is guaranteed under international human rights law. We cannot be a country that in any way criminalises asylum seekers. The bill does just that and it exerts particular harm on children, women surviving male violence and LGBT people who are fleeing persecution.

As we have already heard, all of that has prompted Amnesty International to describe the bill as “draconian” and a fundamental repudiation of the UK’s asylum responsibilities under the refugee convention. It is exactly that. That is why my party agrees with the motion lodged in Neil Gray’s name that the bill would

“damage people living in communities across Scotland”

and that Parliament should withhold its consent to the

“two provisions that trigger the requirement for legislative consent”.

The route of using small boats to reach the shores of this country is dangerous and not something that anyone wants to see. However, we must ask ourselves how desperate we would have to be to get on board one of those dinghies, to risk our lives and the lives of our nearest and dearest—the people whom we love—to reach sanctuary on these shores. As the poet and teacher Warsan Shire says,

“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

Perhaps the cruellest and most chilling aspect of the bill as introduced was that it would have criminalised not only those who make it to our shores but anyone who attempted to rescue people in danger of drowning, including even the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Thankfully, the Government amended the bill to protect rescuers from prosecution, but only after much shock and outrage from people who still had their basic humanity intact.

The bill provides a deeply troubling insight into the characters of the people who have drafted it and those who have been its vocal supporters. Put plainly, the bill is a crushing weight on the right to safety of vulnerable people, survivors of human trafficking and people who have nowhere they can call home.

The bill goes so far as to give the Government the power to render former British citizens stateless, without even the requirement to inform them beforehand. Government ministers have said that that draconian measure will be used only in the most extreme circumstances, but that is not what the numbers so far suggest. The laws on revoking citizenship were relaxed 15 years ago and, since then, at least 464 people have had their citizenship revoked, with a huge spike in the past few years. Perhaps we should be asking what circumstances merit the use of the word “extreme” and who gets to decide that.

For a moment, I would like to address anyone who is watching the debate and who views the issue in a different light. They might look at the bill with a degree of apathy and think, “Well, it won’t affect me.” Some might think that there are already too many people arriving in this country via the Channel and that something must be done about that. However, those numbers are vanishingly small. Even if you are looking at the bill from a place of pure self-preservation, you should be firmly against it. If you consider yourself to be in any way liberal or progressive—a believer in the rights of the individual to be protected from overreach by the state—you should reject the bill. If it is your view that people who are in need of asylum should not be abandoned, criminalised or left to drown in the English Channel, you should reject it with every fibre of your being, as my party and I are proud to do.

There is no excuse for legislation that is immoral. There is no excuse for bad or dangerous law. By way of comparison, imagine for a moment that the death penalty still existed or that punishment could be meted out without the need for a trial or to inform the person whose life was to be ended. If we were told not to worry, that it would not affect us, our loved ones, our neighbours or our colleagues and that it would be used only in the most extreme circumstances, would we feel safer? Would we feel that it was a legitimate or positive step forward? I think that we would not. As Martin Luther King once said,

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The Liberal Democrats are proud to utterly reject the Nationality and Borders Bill and the regressive, dangerous and wholly illiberal politics that it represents.

17:12  

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

The Scottish Government is not alone in its position that the bill will cause damage, have negative consequences on people’s lives and have an impact on devolved matters and services. Last April, more than 75 charities, belief groups and community organisations in Scotland wrote to the Prime Minister to raise their significant concerns about the new plan for immigration. They highlighted the reach of the UK Government’s proposals into areas of devolved competence. The bill confirms those fears.

An independent legal opinion that was commissioned by the Scottish Refugee Council and JustRight Scotland concluded that the bill reached into or impacted the lawmaking or executive powers of the Scottish Parliament and Government. I would rather believe and support those organisations than Donald Cameron’s comments at the beginning of the debate. Was it not interesting that Donald Cameron mentioned support for the bill only in his final sentence, so embarrassed are the Tories by their association with it?

Sarah Boyack was absolutely right that Donald Cameron and the Tories have tried to dodge the issue. She used some very real examples, particularly in the context of the potentially impending conflict in Ukraine. We could have people fleeing as refugees and ending up being criminalised. That brought into sharp focus the issues that we are dealing with in the here and now.

As Neil Gray outlined in his opening speech, the Scottish Government recommends that consent be withheld on clauses in the areas of age assessment and modern slavery that would trigger the need for legislative consent from the Scottish Parliament. Only last week, the Welsh Senedd also voted to withhold consent on the bill’s age assessment clauses.

For the UK Government to simply state that asylum is a reserved matter—that was parroted today by its Scottish Tory colleagues—ignores the complexity of the reforms that have been proposed. It also ignores the legitimate role of devolved actors in the functioning of the UK’s refugee protection system and the implications for devolved services and our communities.

I thank the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, which considered the legislative consent memorandum within a challenging timescale. Consideration of legislative consent was prolonged due to the complexity of the bill and the fact that significant amendments were tabled as it progressed through the Commons. I appreciate that the committee made time to ask witnesses who were already providing evidence about the bill and legislative consent, and I welcome the report that was published yesterday.

The UK’s asylum and immigration systems are in desperate need of reform. We need effective and efficient systems that are fit for purpose. We need systems that protect and prioritise child welfare and do not subject those who are most vulnerable to unreliable, invasive, unnecessary and potentially inaccurate age assessment techniques. We need systems that support the potential of new Scots and integration for the benefit of everyone in our communities.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary is making a powerful speech, and I completely associate myself with the sentiments of the Government on what is a disgusting bill. Does she agree that the Parliament can show a lead in welcoming those who are subject to immigration control to Scotland by taking practical steps within the restrictions of no recourse to public funds, for example by extending concessionary travel to all those who are under the asylum system?

Shona Robison

As Paul Sweeney will know, we had a very constructive meeting about that, and he knows that I want to go as far as we can in helping to support those who have no recourse to funds, while keeping within the law. I am happy to continue those discussions.

In conclusion, Presiding Officer, the bill blatantly breaks the UK’s international obligations under the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Ultimately, it is about people. It is not hard to look around the world and find conflict, war, terror, persecution and violence. It should not be hard to find compassion and empathy for those who are forced to flee. Would we not seek to do the same to protect our lives and those of our families? The bill does not provide for that. I urge the Parliament to reject the Nationality and Borders Bill, and to support our motion.

That concludes the debate on the UK Nationality and Borders Bill.