Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Kevin Brennan.]
Just to clarify any confusion about the title of the debate, initially it was put down as the Registration of Migrant Workers, but it has been clarified to focus on the regularisation of unregularised migrants. The two titles mean very different things, so I just wanted to make clear my focus in this debate from the outset.
By one of those coincidences, I was made aware that our request for a debate about regularisation had been successful just after I had accepted an invitation to participate at 10 o’clock this morning in my constituency in a refugee week event with John Armitage, from the diocese of Brentwood, who has been a leading advocate of the regularisation campaign throughout. Unfortunately, I cannot make the event today, but the campaign’s work in our constituency to support refugees or unregularised migrants is humbling to witness as a local MP.
Given that we are in the middle of refugee week, it is timely that we hear some of the debates about the status of at least 500,000 people in this country, not including their dependants, who have no legal status in the country. From my local casework, I have found those people are often the most abused by employers, landlords and criminal gangs. Given the nature of the debate about refugee week, which is taking place throughout the length and breadth of the country, it is also timely that we discuss the possible remedies to bring them out of the shadows and regularise their status in this country.
I know that the issue is very difficult politically, but it is incumbent on us all as local politicians and public policy makers to speak up for some of those people who have no voice and no traction in the political process. The debate today is about providing possible remedies—sometimes called an “amnesty”, but I prefer the term “an earned regularisation”—to the status of up to or possibly more than 500,000 people in this country.
It is agreed that those 500,000 people are a combination of refused asylum seekers who have been made to wait years for their applications to be processed, and are now rooted in British society; and visa over-stayers, who work, pay taxes and are part of our communities. What both have in common is that they are in legal limbo; that they are often, as a result, very poor; and that they are trapped between the countries that they have come from and the society that they wish to make their new home.
The Home Office accepts that most of those people will remain in the UK. Deportations are expensive and difficult, and they number no more than 20,000 a year. At the current rate of deportation, it would take 25 years to remove hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants, and it would cost billions of pounds. Even if it were possible, it would not make any sense to do so, as economists, including those at the CBI and the TUC, agree that continued migration is vital if we are to meet skills shortages, and that it is responsible for our current low-inflation growth.
A report by the National Criminal Intelligence Service summarised the total loss to the Exchequer from unpaid tax and national insurance contributions to be as much as £3.3 billion. The extra fiscal revenue from a regularisation process would result in a net gain to the Exchequer of between £500 million and £1 billion, according to estimates supplied by the Institute for Public Policy Research. At the same time, the National Audit Office says that each deportation costs almost £11,000. The IPPR says that it would cost £4.7 billion to deport the 500,000 people whom the Government think are in the country.
Many other countries, including the United States, Spain, Greece and Germany, have issued so-called “amnesties” in recognition of the fact that at some point, people who have lived in the country for an extended period, starting families and putting down roots, can no longer be reasonably be regarded as outsiders. Maintaining the current policy is causing chaos, distress, bureaucratic logjams and misery on a large scale. De facto, those people are part of society, and our obligations to them mirror those that we owe our fellow citizens. Hard-working families are being criminalised, and honest people turned into liars. The underground economy is growing, creating an area outside the law which gives succour to criminals.
One solution, which we outlined in early-day motion 1371, standing in my name, and which I think has the support so far of 81 MPs from all political parties, many faith groups, business leaders, community leaders, the Mayor of London and the Strangers into Citizens campaign, is that irregular migrants who have been in the UK for four years or more, up to a determined date, should be allowed to work legally for two years without access to benefits. At the end of that period, subject to employer and other references, criminal checks and the like, they should be given leave to remain. That six-year earned pathway would also maintain a strong deterrent to future illegal immigration. That is only one option in hand. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has also put forward a solution based on a two-year threshold and then a five-year work permit, leading to an earned regularisation. There are different models around.
I shall not use the word “amnesty” today, because it suggests to more melodramatic elements of the press, a blanket pardon for criminals, and it gives the impression that anyone without status in the UK should be given leave to remain. I am arguing for a pathway into citizenship for long-term migrants, which is a significantly different concept.
My proposal would consist of a carefully managed programme, which would allow those people who had made new lives in the UK to acquire the rights and legal status that everyone who lives and works in the UK permanently should enjoy. Regularisation is what I wish to argue for today—a one-off as opposed to a rolling regularisation measure to coincide with the Government’s border-enforcing policies that are set to take effect over the next two years. Next year a points-based system will be introduced, and we also have the introduction of ID cards, and the general overhaul of the Home Office’s work. Arguably, they create the opportunity for a one-off regularisation process to deal with the legacy of public policy failures that have been mapped out over perhaps 20 years.
I do not oppose—indeed, I support—the notion that a nation state must regulate its borders, and any measure with provisions that are too generous could weaken that policy. In 2005, Spain regularised some 700,000 people as part of a wider border-enforcement measure to extend the state’s control over the black economy and curb illegal immigration. Since 2005, the number of illegal immigrants has gone down not up—proof that well designed regularisation helps to deter illegal immigration.
There is no longer a deterrent effect in criminalising people who are hard-working, honest and conscientious, who pay taxes and contribute to society, and who have put down roots in the UK. Forcing them to live beyond the law does not make our borders stronger, but brings the law itself into disrepute. It also encourages people traffickers, drug traffickers, international criminals and terrorists, who are far harder to track down, because of the size of the shadow economy in which they operate. Regularisation would help to expose those undesirables, enabling authorities to concentrate resources on removing them, not the honest, hard-working people who are building Britain.
Regularisation would also greatly benefit our asylum process, clearing at a stroke the huge backlog of cases dating back to the late 1990s. The measure would also bring relief and hope to thousands left destitute or in limbo, freeing up their energies and gifts to the benefit of the economy.
Overall, the benefits of regularisation might be: to reduce the size of the undocumented population; to reduce the size of the underground economy; to increase tax and social security contributions, given that as a result of Spain’s 2005 measures, the country has paid off its social security deficit; to improve the human rights and dignity of migrants; to enforce minimum wage and other labour legislation, levelling the playing field for all workers; to gain control over the undocumented population, allowing Governments and local councils to meet real needs; to improve the rule of law and national security, reducing criminality and enabling states to concentrate on deporting undesirable or criminal elements; to fill local labour market needs; to assist in community cohesion and integration; and to reduce employer exploitation.
Regularisation enables migrants to break free of exploitive employers, to challenge exploitation through the law and to compete for better jobs. Many irregular migrants face a glass ceiling that their status imposes, and most work well below their skill levels.
I want to cover a couple of the responses that we are likely to hear today. The first is that a regularisation programme of the type envisaged would encourage greater illegal migration. It is true that regularisations in the EU have not succeeded in drying up illegal immigration, but they have offered a just, humane and sensible way of responding to it. The only factors that can definitively reduce illegal immigration are tight border controls and a sluggish economy with high unemployment. As long as our economies are growing and our birth rate remains low, we can expect immigration. However, because the economy is ahead of any attempt by the state to manage the migration, there will be some degree of illegality.
The question is whether a regularisation programme will make the situation worse. It is true that although the US, Spain and Belgium have introduced regularisation measures, all have continued to experience illegal immigration. However, it is also true that those countries that have not introduced substantial regularisation measures, such as the UK, have also experienced a rise in illegal immigration. Although we can be certain that, on their own, regularisations do not prevent illegal immigration, it would be foolhardy to suggest that they caused or encouraged it.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I have been following his argument closely and with genuine interest. The evidence from other countries that have brought forward such regularisation measures would suggest that each time they have been introduced, a larger number of illegal immigrants have been introduced into the programme. For example, Italy has had five such programmes. In 1987-88, 119,000 illegal immigrants were regularised, and that figure has increased in stages, to 235,000 in 1990, 259,000 in 1996, 308,000 in 1998 and 700,000 in 2002. Does that not suggest that such regularisation programmes actually encourage illegal immigration?
The picture is much more mixed than that. Most migration experts assert that economic factors—not the chance of citizenship—are the primary pull factors in the migration process. Rather than seeing the regularisation process as the key driver behind patterns of migration, if we compare and contrast the situation in Spain with the experience of other countries, the picture appears much more mixed and suggests a more nuanced analysis of the pull factors. The jury is out—the subject is up for debate and that is why we are having this debate today. However, simply seeing the regularisation process in Italy as the trigger for successive waves of illegal immigration belies the broader economic dynamics at work, which suggest a more balanced analysis of what contributes to such extraordinary demographic flows.
To continue from that, the dynamics at work in patterns of migration in Europe over the past few years suggest that the push factors are poverty at home, lack of opportunity, political instability, violent conflict and the desire to reunite with family members abroad. The pull factors in Europe are a declining population and a continuing demand for labour, especially in the low-wage, low-skill parts of the economy. Anecdotal evidence in the UK suggests that irregular migrants are usually escaping a situation or seeking a better life. They are not after a new passport. Often they go back or move on to a third country, but sometimes they end up staying, albeit for a host of reasons that they would not have foreseen when they left their initial countries.
Migrants have come to the UK in search of new lives and opportunities, not citizenship. A one-off regularisation measure of the sort that I propose would not act as a further incentive, because our criteria are strict—the Strangers into Citizens campaign proposes four plus two years—because the measure would be a one-off and because both the main political parties in the UK are committed to border enforcement measures, which would make it harder to enter the country illegally. On its own, regularisation will not deter illegal immigration, either. However, combined with border enforcement measures, such as those that the Government are now implementing and the type of measures that I advocate, it would be stated with certainty that regularisation would not encourage further illegal immigration.
Most irregular migrants who also pay taxes receive nothing in return by way of benefits. It is only right that those work and contribute to British society should be given the basic protections of the welfare state.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on one of the toughest subjects facing us in Britain today. I start from the position that he does, which is that I do not want anyone to be exploited, but would he attack me for a lack of faith, in being vaguely sceptical about the TUC report this week? It said that migrant workers do not have an impact on unskilled and semi-skilled workers. I take the view that we have an incomes policy in this country that affects unskilled and semi-skilled workers, but not the big City earners in the square mile down the river. How are we going to address that problem, so that we can ensure that our key belief that nobody at all should be exploited is delivered to us all?
That is a big debate, but I agree with my hon. Friend and have some suspicions about the TUC report. It argued that, apart from a number of anecdotal examples, there was no negative effect, in terms of employers abusing migrant workers, of deregulating labour markets. In my constituency recently, for example, a Lithuanian gang was employed on £15 a day—barely half the minimum wage—on a public contract. Similarly, I am sure that we all have anecdotal evidence of forms of exploitation and abuse that I have not witnessed in 20 to 25 years occurring in regular patterns in cities such as London. That means that we have to deal with the problem. Part of that should be a regularisation process. Often, those who receive the most compound abuse, from employers, landlords, criminal gangs and so on, are those who have no status.
To put a floor under the labour market, we have to address the tough stuff—those groups of people who are disproportionately used as pawns to deregulate labour markets. In my experience, those who have no status are the most susceptible to those bad employers. That is why regularisation is part of a series of policy initiatives that would allow a more mature debate about race and migration, as well as choking off some of the material forces that play into the hands of those employers who want to abuse those groups in society with the least protections. Regularisation is linked to the TUC report, but the TUC report does not go anywhere near far enough in acknowledging the labour market pressures that are causing the race to the bottom that we are currently experiencing.
Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Would he agree that one good step forward would be to encourage and allow much tougher contract compliance by all public bodies in all public spending, particularly on construction and maintenance contracts? Too often, local authorities and others turn a blind eye to what they know is going on, in their name, effectively, through public spending on building contracts.
That is absolutely right. The state has a key role in that, as well as in the health economy, for example. Some of the most widespread abuses of migrant workers that I have witnessed have been through the supply chain in cleaning or security contracts and the like. The state has a key role. This is a different policy agenda again, but if we introduce a system of contract compliance, so that those who bid for public money should have a system of employment contracts over and above the statutory minimum, that could also help to create a floor. That way, the most vulnerable would not be the most exploited, through their labour market situation, by employers using those with no recourse to the law to overcome their exploitation at work. I therefore acknowledge the pioneering work done by some of the unions in cities such as London on living wage campaigns among those who arguably have the least status in this city, but who make some of the most significant contributions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and strongly support the campaign. The cruelty with which some failed or waiting asylum seekers are treated is abominable. The strong anti-immigration feeling in the country is partly caused by the chaos of the system and by lots of people being unable to work. That makes people resent those living at public expense who are not working.
To stop an uncontrolled flow and to stop criminal people smugglers from running the international asylum system, we need to renegotiate the Geneva convention, give automatic funding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ensure that anyone who is fleeing anywhere in the world is cared for—we are not, for example, providing funding for Iraqi refugees—and have committed numbers, so that we can bring in people in a managed way, with their families and able to work and settle. The answer to the point that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) raised is a renegotiation of the convention, to bring it up to date for the conditions of the modern world.
I totally agree. The debate about regularisation is not a panacea for anything, but an attempt to stimulate a series of consequential debates about the international treaty and how to manage extraordinary global demographic movements. There is the refugee issue; my right hon. Friend alluded to Iraqi refugees, and there are 2.2 million of them.
Domestic policy initiatives over and above regularisation could allow the construction of a different architecture around the politics of race, migration, asylum and demography in this country. Arguably, the combination of our current policies is systematically poisoning the well around the whole debate. Unless we retrieve the situation by having a mature, grown-up debate based on real people, such as the 500,000 in this country, we shall not be able to retrieve some of the terms of debate. That is worrying for the broader issues of community cohesion.
I witness that in my own community; the far right has secured 12 council seats in our borough, and that is not unrelated to some of these questions. Unless we step back, try to establish a different discussion and bring different policy initiatives—even if they are uncomfortable—into play, I will worry about where the whole debate will head.
I shall make a couple of concluding points, as I know that a number of colleagues want to contribute. Like many who call for one-off regularisation, I welcome the Government’s commitment to tighten UK borders and introduce a new monitoring and assessment system into the immigration process. Keith Best of the Immigration Advisory Service stated that regularisation:
“should happen at the same time as the introduction of the Government’s e-borders programme between 2007 and 2008, because it would help to clear the decks. If we held an amnesty at this time, it would allow us to know, once and for all, the identity of those who have over-stayed, while encouraging people to come forward.”
There is a precedent. In 2003, there was a mini-amnesty in the UK, when the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), ordered it as a means of “clearing the backlog” of asylum cases. What was presented as an administrative matter was in effect a mini-regularisation programme. There were no recorded complaints that the 50,000 people who benefited had in any way abused the system. Equally, when the A8 countries joined the EU in 2004, the UK Government did not tell the Poles and Lithuanians who had been working here illegally that they should go to prison or back to their countries. They were asked to register.
A one-off regularisation of the sort that I support and that has been proposed by the Strangers into Citizens campaign or the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, recognises the dignity of human beings who have made new lives in this country. It would extend and reinforce the rule of law; level the playing field for low-paid workers; enable business to employ legally the labour that it needs; recognise the role that migrants already play in society; ensure that tens of thousands of British workers receive the protection of the law; shrink the underground economy; free up billions of pounds in extra taxes for the Exchequer; enable local authorities to plan better according to real population figures, not the increasingly out-of-date ones supplied by the census; solve the expensive, inhumane delay in processing old asylum claims; build a more cohesive British society; and turn outlaws into neighbours—“strangers into citizens”—in the best British tradition of pragmatism and justice. Furthermore, it might well be popular.
Before I call the next speaker, I advise Members that I intend to call Front-Bench spokespeople at 10.30 am.
It is good that we are having a debate about what we should do about a problem that everyone knows exists. There is the context of the Government agenda, which says that migrant workers bring economic benefits and considers managed migration. However, it also says that it will crack down on illegal working. Some of the proposals in the UK Borders Bill, which is still progressing through the House, are related to that.
We know that very significant numbers of people are working here illegally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) said, we should consider what that means. Out there, the common concept of those who work illegally is that such people work in the moonlight economy. However, a lot of people are illegal in the sense that they do not have permission to work, but work in the mainstream economy. Over the years in constituency advice surgeries, I have seen lots of people who have come here through a variety of means. Some came originally as asylum seekers and were given permission to work, which had never been revoked; they still had a piece of paper stating that they had that permission. Others came with valid visas, got national insurance numbers and started to work. Others came as students. Others came from countries that are now on visa lists, but were not when they came, so they did not have to have a visa to come. All those people have national insurance numbers, pay tax and have been doing so in some cases for years and years. As my hon. Friend said, they get no benefit from that, but they have absolutely no security.
People who were recruited on a bursary by the national health service to train as nurses, and who have qualified, have then been told that they are not entitled to work in Britain. Has my hon. Friend come across that? We expensively train someone whom we need and then tell them that they should leave the country.
Yes, I have certainly seen examples of that.
A lot of those people are effectively settled: they have houses and families, and they pay rent or have mortgages. However, they have no security. Employers, particularly large ones, are starting to carry out more systematic checks on people’s right to work, so the people whom I have mentioned may lose their right to work at any time. The Home Office knows that lots of people are in that situation; that is precisely why it has included data-sharing proposals in the latest UK Borders Bill—to allow checks between records from the Inland Revenue and those from the Home Office and throw up those examples.
There are also people in a completely different situation. They are in the moonlight economy, have no national insurance number and work for employers who know very well what they are doing. Such people are most open to the worst forms of exploitation; I shall not repeat what has been said about that. They cannot enforce any employment rights whatever—not the minimum wage, not working conditions; all that goes by the board. That has an impact on other people working in the same industry or similar areas of work; I do not accept the argument that it does not.
If, as the Home Office says, we are to have a crackdown on illegal working—if we are to try systematically to discover employers that knowingly employ people illegally and if we are to cross-check Inland Revenue records with the Home Office’s and throw up all those people—what will then be done? I have never heard a single word from the Home Office, which knows the numbers involved, about how it intends to deal with the issue. I have heard arguments against our proposed regularisation scheme, but have never heard a single positive word about what will actually be done.
If there are, as we suspect, up to 500,000 people, plus dependants, in the situation that I have described, the absolute reality is that they are not all going to be removed. That is a simple fact; it would be absolutely impossible. At the current rate of removals, doing so would take 25 years. Even if that rate were stepped up, lots and lots of people would be thrown up but would end up not being removed.
What would happen to them? Would they just be left destitute? Some will be if we carry on doing nothing. They would lose their jobs, they could not claim benefits and they could not get another job. They have families, and rent to pay and so on. Are we going to leave them destitute? Is that the policy? Frankly, that would be a non-starter and would not work.
If the Home Office is going to argue that it will not go for a systematic regularisation scheme, it has to produce some other systematic way to deal with those people. It is no good simply saying that we will deal with them individually, because we know what will happen. We know the size of the backlog in the Home Office, and how long it takes. People come to see us who have put in applications 18 months or two years ago that are still sitting in the Home Office and not being dealt with. Saying that we will deal with the problem by dealing with these people individually is unreal.
The only way in which we can deal fairly with the problem is through a regularisation scheme, whether it is one of the proposed schemes or something else—we can argue about the details of what it should be. I do not believe that the proposed approach would necessarily be a magnet if it was properly dealt with and a one-off. Italy was mentioned, but it has notoriously lax border controls and so it is not comparable. If the Home Office make the border controls work, and make some things work better—such as when people are able to get a national insurance number when they do not have the right to one—and if a regularisation scheme is combined with the introduction of the sort of controls proposed by the Home Office, I do not see any reason why such a process should become a magnet.
Let me conclude by returning to an earlier point. If we are going to go for the rogue employers and throw up all those individual cases, what does the Home Office propose to do? I ask the Minister, please, not to tell me that it will consider each individual case as it arises, because that will be a recipe for chaos. There is only one sensible way in which to deal with the situation, which is through a clear, one-off regularisation scheme that allows people to know where they stand. People can then behave as citizens rather than living all the time without knowing whether they will be out of a job and with no money next week.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on securing it. I have been closely following his campaign on the issue, not least because in the two years since I was appointed to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe I have been an active member of the committee on migration, refugees and population. I am its rapporteur for a major inquiry into, and report on, regularisation programmes for irregular migrants. In Strasbourg next week, I anticipate that my report will be approved by the committee for debate in the plenary session in early October and that that report will be supported by Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Members of this House as well as Members of Parliament from all political parties in 46 European countries.
In an intervention, the hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) made the point that this is probably the most serious and intractable problem to face our society. I have no doubt from what I have seen and learned over the past two years that that is undoubtedly the case. Time does not permit us to go into all the detail of what will be in my report, but I am more than happy to make a copy of it available to any Member. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who is our Front-Bench spokesman, and I have exchanged comments on the matter and I have kept him informed of some of the work that we have done.
What we have to do, above all else, is to face the facts. At a conservative estimate, there are probably between 5.5 million and 6.5 million irregular migrants in the European Union alone, and considerably more in other European countries outside the EU, with between 8 million and 10 million irregular migrants living in Russia. It has become ever more clear that a large proportion of those persons will remain in Europe, sometimes moving from country to country, and that it will not be possible to return them forcibly or voluntarily to their countries of origin. The question arises of how to deal with those irregular migrants who live in Europe and are tolerated, for the large part, but who do not have a legal status or a right to remain. The speeches made by the hon. Members for Dagenham and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), as well as some of the interventions, colourfully illustrated the problems that we all know exist.
Several member states of the Council of Europe have in the past undertaken so-called regularisation programmes. My research shows that in the past 25 years, more than 20 regularisation programmes have been carried out within the European Union alone, providing 4 million irregular migrants with either temporary or permanent residence and work permits. A substantial regularisation programme is under way in Russia, where 1.5 million people have been regularised—600,000 are in jobs, and the other 900,000 are spouses and dependants. A range of different programmes have been tried, including exceptional humanitarian programmes, family reunification programmes, permanent or continuous programmes, one-off or one-shot programmes like the proposal of the hon. Member for Dagenham, and earned regularisation programmes. The trend is towards earned regularisation for people who have been in the country and in work for some time.
The matter is highly controversial, as the hon. Gentleman said. The arguments go both ways. Some say that regularisation in effect encourages more irregular migration. I have not found that to be the case. Spain was mentioned, and I was in Madrid in February to talk to politicians of all parties, trade unions and employers. They believe that the one-shot regularisation programme introduced two years ago, which is now coming to an end and has regularised nearly 600,000 people, has not had any impact on encouraging more irregular migration. On the contrary, the issue in Spain, which came as a surprise to me, is that although we have all seen the tragedy of the boat people arriving on Spain’s southern shore and the islands, that is a tiny fraction of the migration problem in Spain. Most of the people who come to Spain have a right to do so because they are of Spanish extraction. They come from south America on work permits or student permits, get jobs, overstay, and are therefore irregular migrants. Regularising the people who are there is completely irrelevant to that situation, in my judgment.
I am following my hon. Friend’s comments on Spain with interest. Spain has had, I think, six regularisation programmes since 1985. As in the case of Italy, year after year the number of people on those programmes has increased, from 44,000 in 1985 to 700,000 in 2005.
The reason for that is that Italy’s immigration policy is completely different to ours. In Italy, 1.4 million people have been regularised in the past 15 or 20 years, but that is the way in which it provides a route to migration and everyone knows that. We have a different policy. One has to study the facts and take the evidence, as I have done, but the idea that such an approach might be a pull factor is an argument, and one that cannot be denied. However, the push factor is the real reason for migratory flows in most of south-east Europe. One has only to look at the crisis in the Balkans to understand that. There are still some 500,000 internally displaced persons in the Balkan countries despite all that we have done with our European partners to improve the situation. One could debate the issue ad nauseam, but there is not the time to do so and I want to put the other point of view.
Some say that regularisation rewards illegality, and I understand that argument. I equally understand the concern that the longer we discuss whether or not there will be a regularisation programme, the more some people might think they should try to get into Britain so that they can become part of the amnesty. That leads me to my next point: we need to distinguish between a regularisation programme and an amnesty. None of the recent regularisation programmes has been an amnesty, which is when all irregular migrants are legalised. That is not what has happened. In Greece the regularisation programme introduced by the Conservative Government elected 18 months ago is a combination of regularising people who have earned their right to be there and have employment, many of whom came from Albania and the Balkans, and forcibly returning people who should not be there. There is a strong return policy in place. The arguments need to be balanced.
The critical issue that we must face is that, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, on the Government’s own analysis there are several hundred thousand people in this country whom there is no prospect of returning. What on earth are we going to do with and about them?
I have a lot of asylum seekers in my constituency whose applications have been refused and who will not leave the country. They are destitute, homeless and increasingly mentally ill. We cannot live with the increased number of people in that desperate condition. We must do something to sort it out.
The right hon. Lady makes her point extremely well, and in many ways I have a great deal of sympathy with what she says, but I want us to face the reality that something has to be done with these people. My report addresses the situation across the whole of Europe, and we can lessons from what I have discovered. The report recommends a process whereby we clarify the issue, particularly in European Union countries. We need more research and a proper debate about what to do, and we need to learn the lessons and ensure that whatever a member states does, it keeps other countries informed. One reason why the Spanish regularisation was so unpopular was that it did not do that. The matter can be resolved only in the form of partnership.
As the right hon. Lady said, we also need to evaluate the humanitarian issue. I cannot for the life of me see how we can balance an argument that says, “All these people shouldn’t be here. They should all be sent back. It’s all terrible,” with the fact that we cannot do that because we do not know where some of them have come from. Apart from anything else, under Council of Europe conventions we cannot forcibly return people en masse; we must deal with each person individually. In my judgment, removal is not an option other than for people who have recently arrived. The need to strengthen our borders is without doubt, and the front door to migration also needs to be examined. We must see how the points system works and whether it provides business with a sufficient number of workers. That is ongoing.
The issue is sensitive, difficult and controversial, and we know that public opinion is not generally in favour of regularisation. What do we do about that? It has to change or we cannot defeat those people who stand for the British National party, not just in the constituencies of other hon. Members here, but in mine, too, because there are BNP candidates in rural villages in Ryedale. How are we going to deal with that? The only way is to tell the truth and establish the facts, which means that we need to debate the subject and make a quick decision about what we are going to do. The longer it drags on, the worse it will get.
Above all else, we have to put humanitarian considerations at the top of our agenda. I take great comfort from what my former colleague Keith Best of the Immigration Advisory Service has said and is doing, which proves that we can deal with the problem in a humanitarian and compassionate way across the political divide. The people affected have lives and want futures, and we must do something about it. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham on furthering the debate, and I am sure that there will be many opportunities to discuss the issue in greater detail in the months ahead.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on getting the debate. Following the point made by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), nobody should underestimate the large number of people who feel very strongly about the fundamental injustice that is being done to twilight communities throughout the UK. We should not necessarily measure public opinion by the screaming headlines of the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail or the Daily Express. There are an awful lot of decent people out there who take a different point of view. We should not approach the threat of the BNP like a rabbit in the headlights of car; we should tackle it head-on and say that it is leading us into a disgusting, nasty, divisive society. We must stand up for an inclusive society that recognises the rights and needs of everybody in our community, and be prepared to invest properly in it.
On Monday morning, like other colleagues, I took part in a refugee week awareness event in Islington. The council and the refugee forum produced an excellent booklet describing not the disasters or failures but the successes of migrant communities in coming into the area, promoting cultural diversity, producing new businesses, work and educational achievements and developing the strength of inner-city London an awful lot. I congratulate everyone involved in that. We should examine the positive aspects of how migrant communities have contributed and achieved so much in our society.
Without the level of migration to this country that we have had over the past 30 years, when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham said, we have had a falling birth rate, what kind of education service, science base and transport service would we now have? An awful lot of the successes of the British economy in the past 30 years have been built on people coming here and contributing massively to our economic well-being and development.
The other side of the matter is the sadness of people having to flee from oppressive regimes, some of which we supply arms to, and the tragedy of people dying in boats while trying to cross the Atlantic to get to the Canary islands, Italy or Spain. We should develop a foreign policy based much more on human rights and an ethical dimension to deal with the problems that people are trying to flee from in the first place.
I am following with interest what the hon. Gentleman says. Under the proposals for regularisation, what would he do with asylum seekers whose claims were refused?
That is a simplistic way of looking at it, but I will come to it in a second. I want to finish my point about the role that foreign policy can play and the need to have a better human rights records around the world.
The proposal deals with the exploitation of people in our inner-city communities. I used to be a union organiser before I came into Parliament, and I noticed that when people had no regularisation of their position in the UK, they hid. They did not join a union; they were frightened of getting a parking ticket if they had a car; and they were frightened of any authority or of going to the doctor. They were frightened in total. They were therefore grossly exploited. I recall going to a union recruitment meeting for clothing workers in Hackney in the early ’80s. It was a large meeting and the union officials gave good speeches about why those people, who all worked in local clothing factories, should join the union. Not one person said a word throughout the meeting. There was absolute silence—no questions, no contributions, no debate or discussion. Why? Because there were employers at the back saying pretty loudly, so that the people around them could hear, that anyone who joined the union or said anything would be reported to the Home Office. That was the ultimate in exploitation and that is the reality of life for people who have no regularisation.
I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said about a one-off system of regularising people who have been here for, say, four years. We can work out the details of that. Like many others in the Chamber, I have constituents who are asylum seekers. Half of my advice surgery cases involve asylum seekers who come to me, not necessarily to discuss the merits or justice of their case, but simply to get an answer from the Home Office to letters that have been unanswered—in some cases, for years. The Home Office is in an appalling mess. It cannot respond to simple correspondence and give people a degree of security. That has to be looked at.
When someone applies for asylum, they have to pass tests. Are they in legitimate and genuine fear of persecution because of political, social, religious or racial circumstances? All those issues are considered. Most asylum applicants are turned down at first, many win on appeal and many subsequently get the right to remain even though they have not necessarily been granted asylum status. The prospect of removing large numbers of people from this country simply is not on, particularly if they have been here for some years. Somebody who has been here for five years will have children and relationships, and will be contributing to the community. What will we do with them? Will we really uproot and deport them? No. We must recognise that they are here and deal with the situation accordingly.
I support the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham, and I recognise the boldness of the Churches, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Transport and General Workers Union—now Unite—and other unions and individuals who have been prepared to take up the issue. If we want to live in a decent and cohesive society, our wealth and prosperity cannot rely on people who lead a feral and twilight existence, and who are grossly exploited and subject to criminal activities, drug dealers and prostitution. All those things happen because we allow the situation to continue.
The hon. Member for Ryedale pointed out what is happening across Europe. The United States is having this debate in an atmosphere that is very different from the one here. Its politicians—not universally, but generally—are lining up to say that the USA can no longer consider itself a decent, cohesive society if it relies on the twilight existence of a large number of mainly Mexicans and central Americans to do all its dirty jobs. It is time that all the western nations woke up to the problem and recognised that if we believe in human rights, decency and citizenship, we should grant them to everybody in our society.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on obtaining this debate on what is, undoubtedly, a matter of great concern to many Members of the House. That is clear from the contributions that have been made. The debate deals with the significant suffering and exploitation that are either unnoticed by the country at large or, perhaps worse, grossly misrepresented by the media.
May I take the opportunity to join my hon. Friend and others in welcoming the Strangers into Citizens campaign? As he pointed out, the debate is not, as often portrayed, about offering an amnesty but about offering positive ways forward. It is about offering pathways to citizenship for long-term migrants, many of whom are in situations of absolute and abject hopelessness. For the most part, they have the potential to contribute in an enormously valuable way to our society, to our economy and to every aspect of our life, but, for far too many of them, the hopelessness and despair that they face is very real, and their situation must seem to them to be a tremendous waste of their lives and skills.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), I see many people in such circumstances at my surgery. They despair not just over the waste and uncertainty but of any answer as to what the future might hold for them. They are unable to see any clear path for the future. I pay tribute to the many individuals and groups throughout the country who work so tirelessly and so well with those who face uncertain or hopeless situations, particularly in my constituency and in my city of Leicester. Tomorrow evening, I shall attend at Leicester cathedral a presentation on the third survey of destitute and homeless asylum seekers. The work has been undertaken by various groups in the city—faith groups in particular but many individuals as well—that are committed to working with those disadvantaged individuals and to bringing their plight and the reality of their situation to local attention. Those individuals and faith groups fill a gap that desperately needs filling, and often do so in a committed and selfless way.
We have had a well informed and thoughtful debate, and Members from all parties recognise the need to end the waste that is so much a symptom of the present situation. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond sympathetically, and that she will recognise that a positive response is required from the Government to the considerable momentum that is developing behind the Strangers into Citizens campaign. The Government must respond to the needs of those who find themselves in hopeless situations. Those people need a pathway to a positive future that will enable them to make a positive contribution to the society of which they wish to be part.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) on his contribution. This has been an interesting debate, but I have to say to him that it is not reflective of the mood of the country as a whole. I shall probably be a lone voice in this debate. I have a genuine interest in the proposals, and I hope that there will be many other opportunities to go into them in more detail.
We all agree that there is a huge problem in this country with illegal immigration, but I am afraid that it is largely of the Government’s making. The Home Office and Foreign Office procedures for visas are in complete and utter chaos, and all of us, week in and week out, receive letters, e-mails and phone calls from constituents who have not received the replies that they deserve to their applications. The problem has become far worse in the past 10 years. Regardless of someone’s political persuasion, if they look at the matter objectively, they would have to admit that the way in which applications are processed is completely incompetent, and it seems to be getting worse and worse.
The public are angry about the level of immigration in this country. We now have an unprecedented wave of both legal and illegal immigration, and, as far as most people are concerned, they have not been asked for their view on it at all. I quote from an opinion poll carried out in January by YouGov. To the statement,
“There must be an annual limit to the number of immigrants allowed to come to Britain”,
83 per cent. agreed or strongly agreed. To the statement, “Britain is already overcrowded”, 76 per cent. agreed. To the statement,
“Anyone admitted to Britain for settlement should first have to pass an English language test”,
78 per cent. agreed. On the statement,
“Immigrants are of economic benefit to Britain”,
the jury was split: 31 per cent. agreed or strongly agreed, and 32 per cent. disagreed or strongly disagreed. As a political class, we have a very real problem with the issue. There are not many of us here for this debate, yet this is one of the big issues in the country. We need to have a major debate on the Floor of the House to flesh out the question in far more detail.
I start as is customary and with genuine sentiment, by congratulating the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on securing the debate and on taking a sustained interest in this important topic, despite the distraction of his potential elevation on Sunday and his other duties. It has been an interesting debate and I welcome all the contributions that have been made, including the brief contribution of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). It is important that we should not allow the debate to become lop-sided, as it should reflect the variety of opinions that I hear in my constituency and across the country. It would not serve us well if all opinions were not given an airing and considered when discussing such important topics.
I say this with genuine sentiment: it is a difficult area for the Home Office and I have some sympathy with the Minister. In a written answer on 23 January, the Minister for Immigration and Asylum said
“An estimate of irregular migrants working in the UK is not available. No Government of the UK have been able to say with accuracy how many irregular migrants are present in the country, and this is the case for any Government in the world.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 1698W.]
We are dealing with an amorphous issue and its precise scope is hard to define. The breadth of views should be borne in mind, as it is not the case that the arguments point emphatically one way or the other. I will spend the next five or 10 minutes discussing what considerations the Home Office needs to bear in mind when examining the issue in greater detail.
A plus side of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Dagenham is that, in this country, some people have double standards. Many people who are illegal migrants, particularly in big cities such as London, do jobs that many people who have lived in this country for much longer are not willing to do. We take their contribution for granted. They are often employed, for example, as office cleaners. I have no absolute proof that people who clean offices in London are illegal migrants, but I would be surprised if a large number of people who clean offices did not fall into that category. They turn up early in the morning before most people go to work and make the offices look smart and presentable. Employers in those offices, who no doubt earn considerably more money than those cleaners, take that service for granted. It would not be practical to do so, but for the purposes of illustrating my point, if those illegal migrants were pulled out tomorrow en masse and in one go, many people who had taken the work of illegal migrants for granted would suddenly notice that their lives became more difficult in practical terms. We would also have severe labour shortages.
The two factors that drive people to migrate and create an economic global dynamic were mentioned at the outset of the debate. In western Europe, we have had more than 15 years of continuous economic growth, and there is a low birth rate among the long-standing indigenous population. Both those factors create labour shortages and put pressures on the economy, particularly in low-skilled, low-paid jobs at the bottom of the labour market. The Government’s administration of the migration system is far from perfect, but they are working against a bigger backdrop of global economic factors that go beyond the immediate scope of any particular Government. That feeds into the wider debate: for example, many people who work in my constituency and are not United Kingdom citizens come from eastern Europe, particularly the new accession countries such as Poland. They fall into a different category from the people whom we are discussing but, none the less, they fill labour shortages in agriculture, fruit-picking, slaughter houses and other such jobs. They do not directly take work from people who have lived in the community for a long time but fill labour shortages that employers would otherwise be unable to fill.
The second point to be entered on that side of the ledger concerns practicalities. Last year, the think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, estimated that the cost of forced deportation, if we wished to go down that path, would be £4.7 billion. It is fair to say that that is an extremely unlikely, if not impossible, course of action for the Government, given the practicalities and the cost. We are therefore in a strange situation: an unsatisfactory state of affairs that has left a large number of people in a state of limbo is official Government policy by default because no alternative proposals are practical or financially viable. In its report, the IPPR states that regularising the work status of people who are illegal immigrants could annually
“net the Treasury £1 billion.”
We could have a debate about that and dispute the accuracy of the IPPR figures, but there is an economic consideration to be borne in mind.
As mentioned by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), while we should bear in mind the fact that many illegal immigrants have chosen to be here, regardless of their immigration status, we should feel uncomfortable about the way in which they are routinely exploited. I have mentioned some of the reasons why the current situation is hard to sustain and some of the perfectly sensible factors, economic and otherwise, that are driving the phenomenon. It is worth looking at the other side of the ledger in my remaining few minutes. The economy and the declining birth rate are significant factors that have helped to drive illegal immigration. However, if one accepts that that is the case, one cannot argue that if the status of all illegal immigrants was legalised it would solve the problem. Economic factors and pressures on the birth rate would presumably drive another generation or successive numbers of illegal immigrants to fill labour shortages created by ongoing periods of economic growth, greater transport mobility and other factors that are hard for a single Government to control.
We must consider the need for proper border forces, proper entry and exit checks, proper surveillance at ports and other factors. People shy away from the word amnesty, but if the current status of illegal immigrants was legalised, the Government might say that it was a one-off decision that would not be repeated in future. However, people who have come here as illegal immigrants might reach the entirely rational conclusion that although that was what was previously said, the Government could change their mind and there is no reason why they would not do so in the future. Of course any Government would say that such a decision was a one-off. They would not say, “Well, we’re doing this now and we will probably do it again in future”. People who came here would be making not only a rational economic decision, but a rational citizenship decision, as they might think that when the Government said they were going to do it only once, they did not mean it as they had no choice but to give that impression.
People may be concerned, too, that legalising the status of illegal immigrants would be an award for illegal behaviour. Some individuals might have wished to come to the United Kingdom to live and work and become a citizen, but were deterred from doing so because they did not wish to undertake an illegal activity. It might be considered unfair that those who sought to avoid doing anything illegal should be penalised while people who made a different decision would not be penalised. People who have lived in this country for a long time might be unhappy about the pressure on services as a result of giving legal status to people whose immigration status is currently illegal. In conclusion, we all agree about the malign effects of the British National party. I feel as strongly about that as anybody, but the debate is nuanced. There are reasons why the Home Office could go down the path advocated by the hon. Member for Dagenham, but I can see that there are serious considerations that the Minister and others must bear in mind. However, today’s debate is a good starting point for reaching those conclusions.
Like everyone else, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on securing the debate. I imagine that we are far enough through the process of his other endeavours for the last votes to be in the post by now, and I hope that I can wish him well without causing him undue damage.
The hon. Gentleman made a powerful case and, indeed, I have been lobbied, as, I am sure, the Minister has, by the Strangers into Citizens campaign. It makes a plausible case, articulately put. As we have heard, it has attracted support from both sides of the House and from a number of people outside.
It is particularly useful that my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and his committee in the Council of Europe will produce its report shortly, because clearly it is important to put the debate in a global context. We all know that the economic forces of globalisation and the increasing ease of travel between many parts of the world are leading to a worldwide increase in migration, both legal and illegal, and it is clear that any sensible Government policy will have to be put in that context. Equally, however, the case advanced by the hon. Gentleman has its opponents in all parties. I was struck when first I heard him advocate his case publicly on a “Newsnight” debate between the deputy leadership candidates. They were split themselves, and some of his colleagues spoke against his idea.
We have all had hard cases arrive at our constituency surgeries. I shall provide a vivid example of how this issue—not the point about regularisation or an amnesty in particular, but immigration generally—is rising up the agenda. In my constituency, which is a semi-urban, semi-rural one in east Kent, I recently held a surgery at which every case was about immigration. It was the first time that one issue had dominated an entire surgery completely. One might think that that could happen in some of our inner cities, but I was surprised that it happened in a constituency such as mine.
On the issues that have arisen, hon. Members said that we need to have the debate on a factual and honest basis. In that regard, I am slightly dubious about the number of them who simply said, “This is not an amnesty. We must not call this an amnesty.” Actually, it is an amnesty. Let us be honest! That is the proposal. The debate would be held at a higher level if we based it not only on the numbers involved, but on what we are calling for.
We need also to look at the context, which has been referred to several times. That context is the very large number of people in this country who have no right to be here. Inevitably, it is impossible to guess the exact number. Ministers have put a figure on it of something like 500,000—a slightly dubious figure based on an American technique of sampling from some years ago. I suspect that the figure is much higher than that. We must also ask ourselves, “Who are these people and why are they here?” Some of them have come here perfectly legitimately, but have simply overstayed, which will have been a rational and conscious decision. They will have decided to put themselves outside the legal process by doing that. My guess is that they will constitute the largest number.
Some will have been smuggled here illegally, but others—this group has been referred to already—will have come here, claimed asylum, often in the late 1990s and early years of this century, but still not have had their cases registered. It is impossible not to have a huge amount of sympathy for the latter group. We all know that that is appalling, not just because of the inadequacy of the Home Office response, but because of the human effects. There will be children in this country getting on for eight, nine, 10 or 11 who have never known another country, but who have no legal status in this one. Surely that is unacceptable.
Many of the adults will be exploited. I was struck by some of the evidence given by trade unions to the Public Bill Committee on the UK Borders Bill about the fact that groups of Portuguese workers in this country are claiming to be Brazilian so that they can take jobs illegally, and the only jobs available to them will be at wages below the minimum wage. They know that no unscrupulous employer will employ them if they are Portuguese because they will then have rights. Therefore, they pretend to be here illegally when actually they are here legally. Clearly that is unsatisfactory. I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge that the Opposition supported the Government through the passage of the UK Borders Bill to tighten up regulations against unscrupulous employers.
We have heard many of the arguments for the amnesty and the financial argument put by the IPPR, which are plausible, but perhaps not overwhelmingly so. We heard about the need to stop people being exploited, with which of course we all agree. We heard also the argument that we must try to stop the rise of the extreme right. Again, everyone here approves of that. The question is whether this particular measure would help in any or all of those endeavours. In parenthesis, when discussing such issues, we must mind our language. I say gently to the Minister that she could have a word with some of her fellow Ministers, particularly the Minister for Industry and the Regions, who in recent weeks has not shown great care in her language and might have contributed to the inflammatory nature of some of the debate.
I shall get to the nub of the counter-arguments. The claim is that the proposal would be a one-off amnesty. I agree with the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) that that is, of course, what any Government would say, and it has been said by other Governments. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) rightly mentioned the cases of Spain and Italy. Spain has had five amnesties and Italy has had six. France and Belgium have had two each. It would be entirely rational for anyone to think that if an amnesty comes once, that country has crossed a line and will grant amnesties in the future.
Although that would have a beneficial effect on those already here, of whom there are many, we must consider the effect on those not yet here, but who might be considering coming. We are not talking only about those who might be oppressed or wish to better themselves economically by moving to western Europe. We must think also about people traffickers, who are some of the nastiest and most evil criminals in the world. They wish to “help” those who desire to come here. We have all seen pictures of those small boats either coming across the Mediterranean or going across the Atlantic to the Canary islands. What we do not see are the tragedies of those boats that do not get there and the many hundreds, possibly thousands, killed in such endeavours.
If this country took a public policy step that made it easier for people traffickers to persuade some of the most wretched and poorest people in the world that it is worth their while taking a boat across the Mediterranean or Atlantic, we would be doing something immoral and foolish. That is one of the factors that we need to consider. I have heard the arguments put by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale about the Spanish case and how it does not act as a pull factor, but I shall wait to see the report in full before deciding whether that is the case.
It is clear that we need much better control of our borders. That is why Conservative Members advocate a specialist border police force. Clearly, if we have open borders, the argument that we are having in this debate is irrelevant, because many more people will come here illegally. A final point of detail is the point made by Keith Best that we can consider an amnesty more sensibly when the e-borders system is in operation. Unfortunately, it will not be fully operational until 2014—a long way in the future.
I agree that this is a difficult argument, because everyone wants to do the morally right thing, but acting morally does not mean that we should necessarily suspend our intellectual faculties. If the second-order effects of the proposal would be to encourage more illegal migration across the world, we could do more harm than good, so I am not convinced by the argument but, like everyone else, I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Dagenham for raising this important issue.
Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on securing the debate. It is on an important subject and one that is very important to our constituents. Whether we can reach consensus on the way forward or not, it is crucial that we debate these issues.
I associate myself with the remarks made by many hon. Members in entirely rejecting the extremism of the British National party and any who align themselves with its views. That is linked to why I think that it is so important that we debate the issues. If we do not address people’s concerns and we leave a vacuum, and if we are not honest about debating the subject, that will open the door to people feeling that perhaps the only groups that are addressing their concerns are those such as the BNP, so it is our responsibility to discuss these things. Even if we do not reach consensus, I accept that everybody who has taken part in the debate has shown genuine care and concern about the problems and finding a way forward.
That said, I reject what the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said about my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions. I do not see her remarks as inflammatory. They were in the context of being honest and open in the debate and reflecting the concerns of her constituents in an open and honest way. She has the right to do just that. If we categorise those remarks, which were about something that concern her constituents—housing—as inflammatory, we are doing the BNP’s work for it by closing down our ability to address our constituents’ concerns honestly. Whether or not people agree with her conclusions, she has the right, and was right, to make those remarks.
My own view is that a fundamental British value—a value that really characterises British people—is fairness and the belief in fairness. Immigration and asylum issues go to the heart of our society. Our approach to those issues must reflect our values and therefore must be a fair approach, and our constituents must believe that we are dealing with the issues fairly. In addition, I see no point in having asylum and immigration legislation if we do not implement it.
For the Government, an effective and managed immigration system is fundamental to the interests of the United Kingdom. Migration has provided an economic gain for this society, as well as bringing diversity to us. I make no bones about the fact that controlled legal migration is critical for our security and our social and economic well-being.
I shall set out clearly the Government’s position on the proposal by the Strangers into Citizens campaign for a new pathway from illegal status through a work permit stage to settlement, as that was the crux of the argument advanced by my hon. Friend. I accept that there are other similar models. I need to be very straight with him. He would expect nothing less, and I do appreciate the way in which he put his arguments. However, for the following reasons, the Government do not accept that the proposed pathway to regularisation is either necessary or appropriate. Incidentally, I have some sympathy with the question asked by the hon. Gentleman: when is regularisation regularisation and when is it an amnesty? Even if it is partial and it depends on people having been here for a certain number of years illegally or whatever, it is still a partial amnesty, so I do not draw a particular distinction between those two terms.
The first reason for not accepting the proposal is that there is no legitimate argument that our labour market needs to be supplemented by regularising people from the illegal population. Our existing immigration rules provide clear and fair routes for people to come to the UK for employment and settlement, and they fully meet our needs. We are committed to a system of managed migration to ensure that economic migration routes are available to admit people selectively to maximise the economic benefit to the UK and are responsive to labour markets, skill needs and the interests of the UK.
In addition to the work force available as a result of freedom of movement within the EU, the introduction of the new points-based system will open up legal migration routes. Those who want to apply to come to work in the UK can do so on the basis of informed choice and with access to the rights and freedoms available to other workers. The points-based system will be further supported by increasing resources to increase enforcement capacity. To create a new route to regularisation for people here illegally would disrupt the transition arrangements for EU accession nationals.
Secondly, I simply do not accept the contention that the proposal would have a neutral impact on uncontrolled economic migration to the UK. Many hon. Members addressed that. It would send a message across the world that the UK legitimises illegal migrants. In effect, we would be throwing aside our immigration controls and ignoring our rules and managed systems. I do not think that that would strike anybody as fair. If we do it once, that will create a very real expectation that we will do it again—the rubicon will have been crossed.
I am aware that we have had amnesties in the past under previous Administrations. There is no evidence that that has resolved the problem, and hon. Members are again asking for regularisation. If one-off regularisations or amnesties worked, Spain would not have had five, Italy would not have had six and Belgium and France would not have had two. We have had the same situation and there is still a call for regularisation.
The figure of 500,000 was mentioned. We have been very honest about the fact that there is a backlog. The 500,000 relates to the number of cases. It could be lower than that, because people die, return home, or go through the system in another way and get the right to remain through a different route. The 500,000 figure refers to cases as opposed to individuals, and we have already started dealing with that backlog, which is a very good thing. It is important that it is being dealt with.
Hon. Members will know that we are now dealing with initial claims for asylum within two months and we are seeking to complete claims within six. They will also know that we have the lowest level of asylum applications since 1993. We have hugely speeded up the system, which is important, and made it much more efficient. We have tightened up our borders. We have sent the right messages and we have therefore reduced the pull factor. The other side of the argument is that by increasing enforcement and bearing down on those who knowingly and deliberately employ illegal migrants, we cause harm to those migrants and put them at risk. I accept the arguments—
Order. We must now move to the next debate.