I beg to move,
That this House notes that the Government’s immigration policy has resulted in a quadrupling of net immigration since 1997; further notes that the European Commission predicts that the UK population will reach 77 million by 2060; further notes that the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government said in July that the pressure on resources as a result of this level of immigration ‘increases the risk of community tensions escalating’; further notes that the Chairman of the House of Lords Committee on Economic Affairs said in April that ‘the argument put forward by the Government that large-scale immigration brings significant economic benefits for the UK is unconvincing’; and calls on the Government to introduce a limit on economic migration from outside the EU, to ensure that immigration remains a real benefit to the country’s economy and its public services and to reform the marriage visa system to encourage better integration into British society.
My first task is to welcome the new immigration Minister to his job, and it is a real pleasure to do so. He has made an impact already; indeed, he has made such an impact on the Home Secretary that she has decided that it might be wiser not to let him open the debate for the Government. It would be useful for the House to discover what he has said that she disagrees with.
The immigration Minister gave an interview on Saturday in which he said that he wanted a limit on the numbers coming to Britain. That sounds sensible. In fact, it sounds like every interview that I have given on the subject for the past two years. Sadly, he gave another interview on Sunday, in which he said the opposite, describing talk of a limit as nonsense.
I can only assume that the second U-turn came after a talk with the Home Secretary, because she has spent the past two years energetically criticising the policies that on Saturday the Minister said he would introduce. She spent two years saying that any limit on immigration would be arbitrary and unworkable. Her immigration Minister now wants a limit. She spent two years saying that there are huge economic benefits to immigration at any level. He says that it has been too easy to get into this country.
I do not want to be unfair on the Minister and accuse him of disagreeing only with the Home Secretary. He also disagrees with himself. There are so many contradictions in what he has said that I will ask her to comment only on the main one. In his now notorious interview with The Times on Saturday, he said:
“We have to have a population policy and that means at some point we will be able to set a limit on migration.”
He is nodding—that is Conservative policy, and that is a good thing. However, on “The Politics Show” on Sunday, the Minister was asked by Jon Sopel,
“don’t you want to go further and put a cap on the total population?”,
to which he said:
“Well I think frankly Jon, there’s a lot of nonsense talked about the cap.”
Not unreasonably, Jon Sopel said:
“hang on, so there will be a cap or there won’t be a cap?”,
to which the Minister replied:
“Well you tell me what you mean by a cap Jon and I’ll tell you the answer”.
So on Saturday he wants a limit and on Sunday it is nonsense to want a limit.
I am happy to say that there has been more clarity in the Minister’s subsequent interviews. He is completely clear in The Guardian today, where he is quoted in the headline as saying, “We have lost people’s trust on immigration”. He is right about that, but the Home Secretary might care to explain why her junior Ministers are going around admitting that her policies are a disaster. Is she a little worried by this? If not, she should be.
The Minister went further in the speech that he made yesterday. To give balance, I shall quote him this time in The Daily Telegraph. According to that newspaper, he said that the Government had
“implemented policies that had damaged both those moving to the country and the existing population.”
He also went a long way on asylum policy, saying that the Government’s asylum policy had caused
“untold human misery and division”.
He is right, although those are strong words. He made his best point while praising Dutch immigration policy, saying:
“We are about 10 years behind.”
Perhaps he would like to explain who has been in power during those 10 years in which immigration policy has been such a failure.
I think that we can now leave the Home Office team to sort out their differences—[Hon. Members: “More!”] I should love to give my hon. Friends more, but it is important to hear what the Home Secretary has to say about her junior Minister. It is also important to establish whether his candid admissions of failure have any substantial policy changes behind them. Even if we take the words in his Saturday interview at face value, there is a serious problem. Sometimes, he seems to be arguing that unlimited immigration was okay during the economic boom, but that it will not work for the economic bust that we are now experiencing. At other times, however, he argues that we need to treat this as a demographic problem. When he says that, he makes a lot more sense.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made it clear a year ago that the Conservatives believe that population growth has been too fast and that it must be put on a more sustainable course. To achieve that, however, we need properly controlled immigration numbers at all times, not just in a recession. Without a limit, we cannot plan our public services properly, we would have little incentive to improve the training of unemployed people, and, most of all, we would make it more difficult for new arrivals to integrate easily and quickly into British life. I want an immigration policy that will help to make Britain a less tense, more cohesive society. One big charge that the Government must answer is that, over the past 10 years, they have achieved exactly the opposite.
The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I shall be coming to that point later.
Some of the Minister’s remarks over the weekend not only set out the problem but threatened to make things worse. When he says:
“I’ve been brought in to be tougher…If people are being made unemployed, the question of immigration becomes very thorny”,
he is getting alarmingly close to blaming immigrants for rising unemployment. It is the duty of every moderate politician to exercise great restraint when addressing this subject. For the past decade, Labour has been the incompetent party on immigration. The Minister is in danger of making it the nasty party on immigration as well.
The chaos inside the Home Office is frustrating, because there is a chance for a new political consensus on immigration—perhaps symbolised by the formation of an all-party group. I think that we all agree that immigration can produce economic and social benefits, but it will do so only if it meets five criteria. First, it should be under control. Secondly, people need to know that there is a limit, and that there will be no sudden surges. Thirdly, people need to have confidence that the authorities are competent to deal with illegal immigration. Fourthly, our essential public services need to be able to cope with the number of people arriving. Fifthly, immigration policy must aim to attract people who will be of considerable benefit to our economy and our wider society.
Will the hon. Gentleman define an immigrant for the purposes of this debate? Are Irish non-British citizens immigrants? Are the Europeans who are allowed to live and work here—as we can in any European country—immigrants? They all require housing, schooling and health services. Before we get much further into the debate, will he tell us what the Tory definition of an immigrant is?
What the right hon. Gentleman characterises as a Tory definition of an immigrant is exactly the same as his own Government’s definition, which is someone who comes here for more than 12 months. I am glad that he intervened, as it reminds me that he made a thoughtful point in The Observer on Sunday—[Interruption.] I am full of generosity of spirit today. The right hon. Gentleman said that the new immigration Minister’s comments
“risked triggering an ‘auction’ in which political parties competed for the most anti-foreigner soundbites.”
I agree. What I have just said is that the Conservative party will not participate in that auction and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can persuade his colleagues and his Ministers not to participate in it.
The hon. Gentleman’s motion quotes the report by my Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. I simply ask him to confirm that the Committee took no view on the level of immigration and that the parts he quoted referred to local pressures, particularly the fact that the funding that accrues to central Government from immigration was not redirected to local areas to deal with the pressure on local services?
What the hon. Lady’s Committee said—I have the quote here—is:
“The… pace of change… in some areas has”
resulted in migration becoming
“the single greatest public concern in Britain, overtaking concerns on crime and terrorism.”
That is exactly right. It is precisely the pace of change that has got out of control under the hon. Lady’s Government. We have had net immigration of just below 200,000 a year and it is precisely the argument of Conservative Members that if we carry on like that, we will carry on exacerbating the strains and problems that people perceive in immigration policy.
I have given way enough for the time being.
The fact that the Government’s policy is failing is sort of admitted by the hon. Lady’s own Minister, so it need not be a matter of controversy between us. The question is what we can do to alleviate the problem.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the total inefficiency of the Government and the Home Office over the past 10 years has been the major problem, as evidenced by two things? First, the accommodation centres that they were going to set up for asylum seekers cost millions and came to absolutely nothing, and, secondly, it can sometimes take years to get a decision on immigration cases—and the process is getting even slower.
My hon. Friend is precisely right. It has indeed been a decade of incompetence and in his honest moments, the new immigration Minister admits it—[Interruption.] All his moments are honest, but the problem is that he honestly appears to believe different things on Saturday from what he believes on Sunday. What we need, and what we have proposed, is a range of measures to establish firm and fair immigration controls to the benefit of people in this country and, ultimately, to the benefit of new arrivals in Britain as well.
Let me make some concrete proposals, which I suggest the Minister and the Home Secretary could adopt. A Conservative Government would set an annual limit on the number of people from outside the EU who are allowed to come here to work. Such a limit would aim at a substantially lower inflow than we have had in recent years. Economic benefit would be the key test on which individuals would be admitted and the limit would take account of wider societal effects such as housing, public service provision and community cohesion. Most years, we would expect there to be a positive level of migration into the UK, but it would be substantially lower than current levels. The limit would be set after consultation with employers, local authorities and major public service providers—[Interruption.] Ministers on the Front Bench are chuntering hard about consultation. I appreciate that they do not like listening to other people, but if they knew their own policies, they would know that they set up the migration advisory committee and the Migration Impacts Forum precisely to get the information—it is useful to have it—that would allow us to set a limit. Our policy is very similar to what happens in Australia, which has a points-based system, but also a limit.
I have given way enough.
Ministers are disingenuous in always referring to their system as being like the Australian system. It is in some small ways like that system, but it is unlike it in one key way. The Government do not propose a limit, but we do. That is one of the big differences between us.
Our second set of proposals are on marriage. Among our key proposals—some of which, I think, the Government would agree with—is that the lower age limit should be raised to 21 for both spouse and sponsor for marriages with people from abroad. If the Government have said that they will do that, I wish that they would. We also say that the spouse must have a basic knowledge of English before coming to the UK. That will be extremely important in improving community cohesion and integration in this country. Spouses should register before they go abroad to marry, particularly to avoid young women being spirited abroad for forced marriages. All potential spouses coming to the UK ought to take the “Life in the UK” citizenship test while they are here.
Our third set of proposals are on movements of people within the European Union. Clearly, one of the great failures of the past 10 years was that of the Government to predict how many people would come here when the EU expanded in 2004. Britain should put on transitional controls for any future new members, to avoid unexpectedly large numbers of arrivals at any one time. I hope that the Government will agree to that.
Our fourth set of proposals are on enforcement. No immigration system will inspire confidence if our borders remain as badly protected as they have been throughout the lifetime of this Government, despite the hard work put in by those manning the borders. We propose that a new UK border police force be created—it would be a specialist border force, the lead agency dealing with illegal overstayers and the specialist arm of the police in the battle against people trafficking. That would make an important contribution to making our borders safer.
In the past few days, we have heard a number of statements from the new immigration Minister, and he has contradicted himself. As a result, I am genuinely unsure whether he wants to change immigration policy in a direction that we would approve of, or whether he is simply spinning and trying to talk tough. If he is saying, as appeared to be the case in some of his interviews, that the Government’s current policies, which were announced before he took over, are enough to restore confidence in the immigration system, he is destined to be badly disappointed. The Opposition will continue to argue our reasonable, fact-based case on immigration. If hon. Members on both sides of the House do not address the concerns of millions of people about immigration, we are in danger of leaving the field clear for nasty, extremist parties, which simply want to stir up trouble between communities.
This country needs a Government who will put into practice effective immigration controls that will restore confidence in our borders. That is the best way to reduce tension between communities to allow all British citizens to share in the values of our country and the benefits of living here, and to make sure that our public services can cope with the demands on them. If the new immigration Minister moves policy significantly in that direction, he will do some good. If he cannot or will not, the tasks will fall to others. They are all absolutely crucial tasks, and they explain why the need for a firm, fair, balanced immigration policy remains one key reason why Britain needs another Conservative Government, as soon as possible.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“welcomes the actions of the Government in undertaking the biggest shake-up of the immigration system in decades; supports the introduction of the points based system for migration, which will ensure that only those with skills the UK needs can come to work or study; endorses the proposals set out in the Earned Citizenship Green Paper for newcomers to speak English, obey the law and pay their way; looks forward to the issuing of the first identity cards for foreign nationals next month, which will enable those who are here legally to prove it, helping to reduce identity abuse and prevent those here illegally from benefiting from the privileges of life in the UK; is committed to taking tough action against employers who exploit illegal workers knowingly; supports the removal of record numbers of foreign national prisoners; notes the Government’s doubling of the UK Border Agency’s enforcement budget within three years from 2006; pays tribute to the work of the single UK Border Agency; and welcomes the introduction of the electronic border system that will check every visitor against immigration and security watchlists and count them in and out of the UK.”
Without seeking to give offence to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who made a reasonable fist of setting out the rag-bag of half-baked ideas that passes for his party’s policy on immigration, it is a mark of how seriously Opposition Members take the debate that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) could not bring himself to be at the Dispatch Box in Opposition time this afternoon. Thankfully, we have his comments from a newspaper article published yesterday to guide us on his thinking, even though we did not have his thoughts in the Chamber this afternoon.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary. I happily eschewed the possibility of addressing the House in return for the opportunity of hearing the ideas of her hon. Friend the immigration Minister, and I am deeply disappointed that we shall not be able to hear him develop those ideas this afternoon. I think I trust my hon. Friend more than she trusts hers.
The point is that Members will hear from both me and my hon. Friend the immigration Minister today, but they will not hear from the shadow Home Secretary—unless he chooses to pop up and down on various occasions—because, despite having chosen this subject for an Opposition day debate, he has not chosen to present the argument himself.
No, I will not give way yet.
I believe that people understand that migration can bring benefits to our country, but they also rightly demand a robust system, so that we can control who comes here, and so that migrants abide by our laws and contribute to our society. That is why we are completing the biggest overhaul of the immigration system in a generation. For instance, we are taking action to strengthen our borders.
The Home Secretary says that she has a robust system in operation. Can she explain why constituents of mine whose deportation was ordered at least four or five years ago are still in the country? Does she call that a robust system?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be relieved to know that last year we removed one person from the country every eight minutes, and that—this is where he is wrong—we are on track to conclude most of our asylum cases within six months by the end of the year. When the hon. Gentleman and the Government whom he supported left office in 1997, the time scale was approximately 22 months. That is the difference between an effective immigration system and the system that we inherited.
While my right hon. Friend is on the subject of asylum, may I ask whether she is concerned about the number of people in detention, the number of children in detention, and the number of apparent asylum seekers who, having been denied either the right to work or access to benefits, are living in desperate poverty and having to beg on the streets of this country? Does she not think that we need to review the humanity of our asylum system, as well as everything else?
No. Given that the hon. Member for Ashford accepted only four interventions, I wish to make a bit of progress.
We are taking action not only to strengthen our borders, but to introduce a system to ensure that we select only those who can be of benefit to Britain, to ensure that newcomers speak English, pay their way and play by the rules, and to manage the local impact of migration. In April we launched a new UK Border Agency with the purpose, the powers and the punch to protect our borders in the 21st century. Our borders are already among the most secure in the world, and the UKBA has a clear purpose in protecting them, controlling migration for the benefit of the country and preventing border tax fraud, smuggling and immigration crime.
The combining of the Border and Immigration Agency, Customs at the border and UKvisas in a strong single force means that the numbers securing our borders are at an all-time high. There are 25,000 staff, including more than 9,000 warranted customs and immigration officers, operating in local communities, at the border and in more than 135 countries worldwide. However, we are determined to make the border even stronger, and we are doing so by reintroducing the border controls and exit checks that the Conservatives removed when they were in office. Our electronic borders system, e-Borders, will count 99 per cent. of non-EEA foreign nationals in and out of the United Kingdom by 2010, while checking them against watch-lists.
I welcome any increase in border security, but the Home Secretary does not believe that there ought to be a limit or a cap on the numbers coming into this country. If unemployment continues to rise, will she reconsider her policy on introducing a cap on immigration?
I am coming on to how precisely we have introduced a system that will enable us to be flexible and to meet the needs of the economy and the people of this country, unlike Conservative Members.
E-Borders is already delivering results and it is keeping people whom we do not want in Britain out. These checks make up just one part of Britain's triple ring of border security alongside fingerprint checks abroad and tougher enforcement in-country.
Many of my constituents will be concerned about immigrants coming into this country and notionally stealing British jobs. My argument is that if the Conservative party had invested in equipping people with the right skills when it was in power, we would not need the people who are coming into the country now. I am pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend has said, but will she confirm that we will still open the doors of this country to the expertise that we need to buoy up our economy while the Labour party continues to develop the skilled people whom we need to look after ourselves?
Why do the Government continue to confuse the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, under which all the students go home because of the sponsorship arrangements, with the wider issues on immigration? Is she aware that because of the Government’s determination to wind the scheme down to try to appear tough on immigration, over £40 million worth of fruit and vegetables have been unpicked in this country and left to rot in the fields?
I know that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) have raised this issue. We need to ensure that there is flexibility to aid the agriculture market in this country but, particularly by allowing those from within the EEA to take up such positions, we have made sure that there is the labour available to do that.
We need to be selective about who we let in to Britain, and that does not just start at the border. It starts and ends with an immigration policy that works in Britain's best interests with tough but fair rules in place. The introduction of the Australian-style points-based system is now fully under way, ensuring that those, and only those, with the skills the UK needs can come here to work and study.
I was, before the hon. Gentleman made his slightly pointless intervention, going through the Government’s immigration policy. I was just referring to the points system, which gives us the controls that we need to cover close to three in five non-British migrants, work-related migrants and their dependants, and students. That is significantly more than the one in five covered by the proposals for a cap or a limit, even as described by the hon. Member for Ashford today.
If the hon. Member for Ashford and the shadow Home Secretary believe so strongly in the merits of their cap, why do not they tell us what the cap will be? We know that they want one, because they keep waving it about. They should really stop being so coy. If the cap fits, they should wear it in public a bit more. They should tell us, as suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), at what level they would set it and how it would work. If they cannot tell us that, if they say that they do not have the detail and if they say that they cannot decide, what makes them think it is such a good idea?
In one of the pithier sentences in his newspaper article yesterday, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield said he would
“set immigration policy within a wider strategy that meets the changing demographic make-up of Britain, taking full account of its impact on our population and maximising the economic advantages while mitigating the costs and risks.”
That is quite a mouthful, but however much the hon. and learned Gentleman blusters—along with other Members—he rather misses the very point of the points system, which is that it is such a powerful way of controlling immigration precisely because it is flexible, and precisely because it is within our control.
As the Home Secretary says, does not the points system give us the flexibility to enable us to import skills in, for example, the IT industry? The Home Affairs Committee recently met IT executives in India, who commended the points-based system and deplored any introduction of a cap, as proposed by the Conservatives, because a cap system has destroyed the IT industry and its relationship with India in the United States. We do not want that in our country.
My hon. Friend, from a position of considerable expertise, makes the very important point that we need the flexibility and control that the points-based system gives us. It is because Government can raise or lower the bar, depending on the needs of the labour market and the country as a whole, that the points system is such a fundamental change to our infrastructure for controlling immigration.
On the points-based system, would the Secretary of State like to comment on the fact that while her party is talking tough rhetoric over here, it was widely reported in the papers that at a conference in Sylhet led by the chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and attended by six Members, it was said that:
“The number of Bangladeshis migrating to Britain would increase under the”
points-based system? Which of the following is the points-based system: is it a method of control or a method of importing additional people into the country?
I am responsible for a lot of things, but I am not, thank goodness, responsible for what the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee chooses to say—at home or abroad.
The points-based system has meant, for example, that we have been able to bar low-skilled workers from outside the EU. In fact, if tier 2 of the points system for skilled migrants had been in place last year, there would have been 12 per cent. fewer in this category coming here to work, and we now have detailed plans on the table, put forward by the independent migration advisory committee, to reduce by nearly one third the number of jobs available to migrants via the shortage occupation route.
Before the Home Secretary finishes her speech, will she share with the House what thinking the Government are giving to meeting the needs of the economy by letting people in while also breaking the link between people coming here to work and automatically getting the right to citizenship, because the population has grown by people becoming citizens although in the first place they came here to work? It is that crucial link that the group on balanced migration wants to see broken.
I shall come on to the precise point my right hon. Friend makes, and may I also say that I believe that he and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) have made an important contribution through their work, and that I certainly want to continue to discuss it with them?
The important issue in terms of the points system is that by adjusting the points and requirements as necessary, and based on proper evidence of what the economy needs and what is best for Britain, we can decide on the right numbers of highly skilled, skilled and temporary workers that we need in the UK.
No, I will not give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman. If he wanted to have his say, he should have spoken in the debate.
The hon. Member for Ashford made a point about marriage and made quite heavy weather of the need to strengthen the rules to prevent marriage from being used as a means of avoiding immigration controls. He needs to pay more attention. We are already doing that. We are already raising the age of sponsorship and the age for applicants coming to the UK on the basis of marriage. We expect to have those rules in place by the end of the year. What is more, we are ensuring that spouses coming to the UK will need to enter into an agreement to learn English as part of the visa application process, in keeping with our goal of requiring all spouses to speak English before they come here.
I am most grateful to the Home Secretary for her generosity. I was at the meeting in Sylhet to which she referred, at which we discussed the points-based system. Views were expressed on either side of the argument, but I was interested to hear the immigration Minister, who has responsibility for immigration, say that he believed that it was too easy to get into this country. Does the Home Secretary agree?
I have just identified the way in which the points-based system would have ensured that, had the skilled route been in place last year, 12 per cent. fewer people would have come here. My argument is that we need an infrastructure that enables us to make the right decisions on the basis of economic evidence, not a crude cap that at the very best would cover only one in five of those coming into this country.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition’s case is much weakened by their refusal to distinguish between controlled immigration and asylum? Any kind of crude cap shows that they do not really understand what the system is all about.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Conservatives are a party that went into the general election with a manifesto commitment to limit our asylum quota and people’s ability to come here and claim asylum. I do not know whether that is still its policy, as the hon. Member for Ashford did not refer to it today, but that is a fundamentally different issue from controlling the rest of migration.
As we set out in our draft earned citizenship Bill in July, we are making major changes to what we expect of migrants before they can progress to British citizenship. That was the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead referred to. There will no longer be an automatic right to stay here after five years. We have listened to the British people, and the message is clear: they want newcomers to speak English, work hard and play by the rules. Those changes do not make Britain anti-foreigner—far from it. They reassert the value of Britishness and rightly reaffirm that the privilege of British citizenship should be earned.
I very much agree with the Home Secretary’s arguments, but I ask her to be little bit careful in talking about language, because 800,000 British citizens currently live in Spain, and at the last count 17 of them spoke Spanish.
One of the most worrying aspects of this whole debate is the extraordinary adoption, by the fluent French-speaking shadow Home Secretary, of President Jacques Chirac’s anti-Polish policy of limiting workers from the new Europe. Will my right hon. Friend say that the Poles who have been here have contributed to our economy? They are going home now, but this anti-Polish stuff from the shadow Home Secretary is a disgrace.
The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield might be a fluent French speaker, but we have heard neither French nor English from him today. My right hon. Friend is, of course, right. Recent research by the Department for Work and Pensions, for example, showed that those who had come from the new EU accession countries had made an important contribution, and that there had not been a detrimental effect on British workers either.
I am most grateful to the Home Secretary. First, may I just clear up this point, about which she asked? We intend to honour our international obligations to asylum seekers to the letter.
Secondly, if the Home Secretary intends to follow the policy that she has just announced, how will she meet the anxieties expressed by the immigration Minister that population increase in this country will continue to be driven by immigration? No points system as she has described it will enable her to deal with that point.
Fair point: why does the hon. and learned Gentleman not make a speech if he has something to say? He is promulgating a policy that would put a cap on one in five individuals who come to this country. We are proposing a policy that gives us controls over three out of five migrants who come to this country. People need to ask themselves which of the two parties has the most comprehensive approach to controlling migration.
We have overhauled the routes for those coming to the UK and we have taken swift and visible action on those who are no longer entitled to stay.
I am going to make a bit of progress.
In the space of three years, we will have doubled the enforcement budget. I seem to remember that the hon. Member for Ashford and his colleagues failed to support that doubling in Committee, so he can talk tough on enforcement, but he does not vote for the money—no change there. Last year, we removed someone from this country every eight minutes—that included more than 4,200 foreign criminals—and we carried out about 7,000 operations against illegal working, leading to more than 5,500 arrests. Since introducing new penalties for employers to combat illegal working in February, we have levied more than 850 fines—some £8 million-worth—against irresponsible and exploitative employers. Of course, Conservative Members tried to weaken those measures when they came before the House, and they continue to oppose one of the Government’s key policies to prevent abuse and illegal working: identity cards.
Next month, we will issue the first compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals, as the first stage of the national identity scheme. ID cards will help us to protect against identity fraud and illegal working, they will reduce the use of multiple identities in organised crime and terrorism and help us to crack down on those trying to abuse positions of trust, and they will make it easier for people to prove that they are who they say they are.
ID cards for foreign nationals will replace old-fashioned and easily-forged paper documents, and they will make it easier for employers and sponsors to check a person’s entitlement to work and study and for the UK Border Agency to verify someone’s identity. If Conservative Members were serious about protecting Britain’s borders, they would support the introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals. I am talking not only about biometric visas, but ID cards, which are an integral part of the national identity scheme that they say they will scrap.
We are absolutely clear that we need to strike the correct balance in Britain’s migration policy, weighing the economic benefits with impacts on communities and public services. Of course, it is vital that we take the social impact of migration into account. That is why we set up the Migration Impacts Forum to provide us with independent advice on how migration affects public services and local communities, and it is why we are also asking migrants to pay more in the future, towards a fund to help services deal with the short-term pressures of migration.
I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I am coming to a conclusion.
When it comes to protecting our border, enforcing the law, selecting what skills we need here and setting high expectations of those who come, the Government will continue to act in Britain’s best interests on immigration. The points system gives us the grip and flexibility to adjust the numbers coming here according to the needs and circumstances of the time—we heard nothing new from the hon. Member for Ashford on that today. Our proposals on earned citizenship mean that migrants understand very clearly that permission to come here to work or study does not give them the right to settle here indefinitely. Again, there was silence from the hon. Gentleman on the tough measures that we will take to make sure migrants speak English, obey the law and pay their way.
The introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals next month will further strengthen our protections and provide greater reassurance. In the Conservatives’ opposition to ID cards, we see another gaping hole in their argument. This Government are facing up to the challenge, even while the shadow Home Secretary looks on, and I commend my amendment to the House.
We welcome this debate; the motion is right to highlight the chaos of the Government’s immigration policy. There is a widespread crisis of confidence over not just what we are aiming to do, but whether we can do it. The debate raises issues of Government policy concerning both the fairness and the integrity of the system.
There are three elements to what has been epic mismanagement. The first is the sheer scale of the mistakes, judged by the difference between projections by the Home Office and the outcome; the second is the clear lack of control at our frontiers and within them; and the third is the lack of preparedness in local communities that have been affected by unplanned and unexpected increases in population. I shall deal with each in turn.
First, if we look at immigration from the A8 countries—the central and eastern European transition member states—we can see that the UK, Ireland and Sweden were alone in agreeing to immediate freedom of movement without transitional provisions. The Home Office predicted—and the House took the decision on the basis of that prediction—that there would be 13,000 EU migrants a year, or 52,000 by the end of last year. The outcome was 766,000—1,373 per cent. higher than the Home Office’s forecast. In all the history of Government projections, I doubt that there is a single other number of such importance that has been proved so extraordinarily wrong.
In retrospect, we should have had transitional arrangements too. The Liberal Democrats backed the Government’s policy on the basis of the Home Office forecast, and no one can have imagined that it would be out by such an order of magnitude. However, we must remember the substantial benefits of free movement—[Interruption.] I am happy to give way to the immigration Minister. I am unable to make head or tail of what he is saying from a sedentary position. More British people live in the rest of the European Union than citizens from the rest of the EU live here. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is right to point that out.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a difference between those two groups, in that many of the Britons who are abroad have retired and are not competing in the job market, but eastern Europeans here are competing in the job market? Unemployment in my constituency is now more than 10 per cent. for males, so that is a cause for concern.
I certainly agree that there is a difference, but the hon. Gentleman may not like the difference that I would point to. If our citizens live on the Costa del Sol in Spain they have access to Spanish health services and are a drain on Spain’s resources. If Spanish citizens or central and eastern Europeans come here, they pay tax and national insurance here and contribute to the running of our public services. Yes, there is a difference, but not the one that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
I am at one with that last argument. Does the hon. Gentleman share my sympathy with a south Yorkshire lady of Danish origin who has lived here for 24 years and given dedicated service as a local councillor? A newsletter was distributed about her recently, describing her as non-British. She is hurt and offended, and south Yorkshire is outraged. Which party distributed that newsletter? It was the Liberal Democrats.
I have the utmost respect for the right hon. Gentleman’s investigative skills, but perhaps he could show me the leaflet and I might then be able to comment on it. From what he says, it is not something that I would have been prepared to sign off.
We must remember the self-correcting nature of the flows of people. The anecdotal evidence—we do not yet have the official figures—shows that Polish and other central and eastern European workers are returning home to take advantage of the opportunities there. I am told that single tickets for return are selling much better than those for journeys in the other direction. It is, in other words, a different type of immigration, which could be called turnstile immigration. It is very useful both for us and for the new member states.
Does my hon. Friend agree that countries such as Estonia, with which I am very familiar, have a migrant population who come to this country to make an economic contribution and to learn skills but with the intention of sharing those skills and that wealth back in their own country? They do not intend to abandon their home country, but to take advantage of the free flow that my hon. Friend has rightly highlighted as an advantage of the European Union, for the collective benefit of us all.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He certainly has a lot of expertise in the matter of Estonians, in particular—[Interruption.] I know that those on the Conservative Front Bench have a particular expertise in the matter of Etonians, but that is a different issue.
My hon. Friend’s point is absolutely correct. Many of the central and eastern European migrants who have come here have done so in order to build up a nest egg and to go home, start a business and make a contribution to the extraordinary and praiseworthy growth of those economies.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that throughout the UK each constituent nation has different requirements? Scotland, for example, has depopulation, and we need to address that. Does he agree that we need fully to adopt the Australian version of the points-based system and to give flexibility to national Governments to deal with their own immigration requirements?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point, which he has made before. I shall come on to exactly that point. I agree wholeheartedly with him, and when those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches pray in aid the Australian system, they clearly do not yet know the full flexibility of the system that they are talking about.
Faced with the surge in EU immigration that undoubtedly took place, which was unexpected and unplanned for, we should surely have adjusted non-EU immigration flows as a balancing factor. That is just common sense. However, the Government have not done that.
I entirely accept that, but the Home Secretary also has to accept that her Government, whom she has supported, have been in office for 11 years. There were some 145,000 work-related non-EU migrants in 2006 and 124,000 in 2007. Taken with the net immigration of non-EU migrants, that is a substantial flow. Its consequences have been unplanned and unforeseen. Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted is all very well—the Government are very good at it—but it is about time that it was done.
I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is the first time, I think, that I have ever heard a Liberal Democrat politician, in stating that non-EU immigration should have been controlled more, suggesting that there needs to be some overall cap on immigration. Is that a new Liberal Democrat policy?
It does not take any years at all to understand it.
The official Opposition cannot escape responsibility. When the Tories were in government, they took leave of their senses and removed exit checks. Short-term work permits and student visas are, as a result, far more difficult to enforce. Some 346,000 student visas were issued in 2007 to non-EU citizens, and that is a good thing, too. Our higher education is something of which we can be proud. However, how many have returned? We have absolutely no idea who was here, who should be here or who is here. That is precisely why there is a crisis of confidence in the system.
I am glad that both the Government and the Conservatives are now in favour of a national border force, an idea that we introduced to the debate. We need it, along with exit controls, employer checks and enforcement. Between 1997 and 2006—[Interruption.] I realise that those on the Conservative Back Benches do not even know when they are stealing other people’s policies, but those on the Front Bench, at least, ought to know that. Between 1997 and 2006, only 37 employers were found guilty of employing illegal immigrants. The number is rising: in 2007 there were 35 criminal prosecutions, but in the six months from January to June 2008 there were 42. The Government are rightly tightening up but, by God, they are still only scratching the surface.
The hon. Gentleman was speaking about Liberal Democrat policy but now he is straying back to the 1990s. He will correct me if I am wrong but, when Paddy Ashdown was the leader of the Liberal Democrats, it was that party’s policy to allow 5 million to 6 million Hong Kong Chinese into this country.
The hon. Gentleman is right to remind me and the House of that, but this country had certain specific obligations to the population of Hong Kong, because the people involved were British passport holders. He may not recognise those obligations, but under certain circumstances this country must allow people to come here. For example, we very honourably took in 50,000 Huguenot asylum seekers—for that is what they were—even though that number represented 1 per cent. of our entire population. Such action is entirely appropriate under certain emergency circumstances, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the point that he raises, although it is irrelevant to this debate, which is about economic migration.
The most recent estimate from the Government comes from 2001 and shows that we have 430,000 illegal immigrants. That is the result of the Government’s mismanagement—
I am profoundly grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall try not to disappoint him. He referred to the slight increase in prosecutions for the employment of illegal immigrants, but will he share with the House the real figure—that is, the number of illegal immigrants employed by each of the people prosecuted? Will he also share with the House the massive increase in the number of people affected by and caught up in those prosecutions?
I will not share those figures with the House, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman can tell us off the top of his head. If he cannot, we can both consult the Library and so discover in due course whether he has a good point. However, it was a nice stab in the dark—well done!
Before my hon. Friend moves on, does he agree that our party has always argued for certain principles and wanted other parties to accept them? For example, we believe that this country should do its duty by those with whom it has a connection and a link—such as the people from Hong Kong, the east African Asians or the Gurkhas—but that we should always have the proper and effective immigration controls that we have not had for many years. In addition, we believe that people who are not EU citizens should be allowed to stay only if there is a justification for Britain’s having them here, and that there should be a policy to regulate that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as he has made the matter extremely clear.
The third element of the crisis of confidence is the lack of local preparedness among councils and police, health and housing authorities. The London boroughs of Brent or Newham offer good examples of what I mean. On a recent visit to Newham, I was told that GP registrations were running tens of thousands higher than the census projections, which means that there is no follow-through in budgets for the local police or NHS. It is therefore essential that we plan for managed immigration, not least because that would allow us to prepare local areas sensibly for the arrival of those given permission to be here.
The Conservative Opposition’s motion calls for a limit to immigration, and that is certainly more sensible than some of their previous calls for an annual cap, but there is a typical failure to define terms. In addition, there is a contradiction in the motion: in one place it welcomes the real benefits of immigration, yet in another approvingly cites somebody from the other place as saying that “large-scale immigration” has uncertain benefits. It would be interesting to hear from a Conservative Member exactly what the difference is between the real benefits of a low level of immigration and the unpersuasive benefits of large-scale immigration.
I served on the Communities and Local Government Committee, and the report to which its Chairman referred earlier in the debate touched on exactly that point. The Government were severely criticised for not anticipating the pace of change. The communities that we visited felt the strains of the rapid process of change, and that is exactly what the motion is about. The sheer pace of change, and the volume of people involved, meant that some communities described themselves as feeling overwhelmed.
I am grateful for that intervention; I entirely agree with the sentiment. On the other hand—and I hope Members excuse me for being a boring old economist by background—it would have made sense to come up with a number in the motion so as to clarify the difference between the two concepts.
Let me give some examples of why a simple cap or limit of the sort that the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) proposes would be problematic. One of them comes from my own experience. When I was running a team of economists in the City, I needed at one stage to hire a PhD in economics who was an Arabic speaker. We knew that there was absolutely no chance of finding such a person in the London labour market, because we had advertised and failed to do so. [Hon. Members: “What?”] I can assure hon. Members of that, although I should add that there was one other criterion: a knowledge of middle east politics.
In that particular case, in the October of that year we needed to find an immigrant. If the hon. Gentleman’s policy of implementing a cap had been in place, and the limit had already been reached, I presume that I would have had to wait until January. That would have had a serious knock-on effect on the employment prospects of other people in the London labour market, because that person was complementary—[Interruption.] Conservative Front Benchers are saying, “You should train them.” I do not know whether they have any idea of how long it takes someone to study for a PhD, but it is certainly not three months, even with the substantial brain power that the Conservatives have at their disposal.
I will give a more populist example for those of us who are football fans. What about Robinho, as a Brazilian citizen? Would the Conservatives say to Manchester City, just ahead of the transfer window, that it could not possibly hire Robinho? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) might say, “I hope so”, but I am sure that those who are Manchester City supporters—[Interruption.] The immigration Minister is a Manchester United supporter, so he will not be sympathetic. However, for those who are Manchester City supporters, we would have to be a little more realistic about taking one year with another and looking at the needs of particular employers at particular times. It is odd to see the Conservative party, which is meant to understand the market economy, proposing a mechanism reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s Gosplan.
We should remember, too, that these jobs may well be complementary to national jobs and create more employment for UK citizens. That is why the Minister’s dalliance at the weekend is so regrettable. He must have known that there is a long track record in this country of blaming foreigners and immigrants during economic downturns, so it is particularly regrettable that he should have made those comments at this time.
Turning to the point made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who is sadly no longer in his place, a single limit is also difficult. That is not only for reasons to do with skills and its arbitrary nature, but because not all parts of the country have the same needs. Scotland wants growth. Its population has recently been in decline. It has less than 10 per cent. of the UK’s population with a third of the land area. It has absolutely no problem with water resources. The situation in the south-east is precisely the opposite. England as a whole is almost as densely populated as the Netherlands, and the south-east of England is the most densely populated region in Europe, at the limits of environmental sustainability. There was recently a proposal to build a desalination plant on the Thames to get fresh water, for heaven’s sake. We usually only hear about that sort of thing in Saudi Arabia. London is drier than Istanbul. The non-governmental organisation Waterwise has pointed out that the south-east of England has less water available per person than Sudan or Syria.
A points-based system should take account not only of skills but of local needs, as is the case in Australia. Neither the hon. Member for Ashford nor the Home Secretary told the House that the points-based system in Australia takes account of different economic circumstances in different parts of the country.
The hon. Gentleman accuses the Home Secretary and me of not telling him things. Can he tell us how, if somebody has a work permit to live in Britain, he proposes to lock them in Scotland and stop them moving away if they want to? If he does not do that, everything that he has been saying for the past two minutes is nonsense.
That would be enforced in exactly the same way as we currently enforce immigration control within our borders—by inspection of employers. If people have the right work permit, they are allowed to go on working in the same place. That is what happens in Australia. It is not rocket science. If the other two Front-Bench teams had looked at the Australian system, they would know that that is how it works. All areas of Australia are eligible for a scheme that allows sponsorship by an employer in that local area, except Brisbane, the gold coast, Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong, Melbourne and Perth. The Australians make a clear distinction between the parts of the economy that need migrant workers and population growth and those that do not.
Trevor Phillips, who was appointed by the Government, recently broached that as a potential policy option. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Ashford is making such play with the difficulties, when the system is already operating effectively in Australia.
Do I take it that it is Liberal Democrat policy for scores of Government inspectors to tour the south of England trying to identify people who have escaped from Scotland? That seems to be the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Unless there are border controls at the Scottish border, there can be no realistic expectation that those who are allowed into Scotland will be retained there.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The way that the scheme operates in Australia works well. There are the same policing arrangements as we have for work permits in the UK. I have cited the figures. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) upbraided me for not pointing out the number of illegal immigrants who had been found in such raids. That is the standard way—ask the Home Secretary—in which we enforce these matters. There is no need for any internal border controls. That is a scare story.
Anyone in breach of a work permit in Australia is deported. It is as simple as that, exactly as it would be if someone were found to be an illegal immigrant in breach of their conditions. Another condition has merely been added.
I expect that I know rather more about the Canadian system than the hon. Gentleman knows about the Australian system, and they are very similar. I lived in Canada for nine years. I was an immigrant in Canada. Internal controls do not work unless one is prepared to say to immigrants, using the hon. Gentleman’s kind of example, “You can have your job in Scotland, with one employer, so you can’t leave that employer”—it is like slave labour—“for evermore.” That is the problem with the system that he is proposing. If people are given a time limit, as they certainly should be given in anything like such a system, within four years they will all move, as it were, from Scotland to London.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. That is not the experience in Australia. What happens there is similar to our own arrangements under any other work permit. After a certain period working in the economy, migrants are entitled to apply for citizenship. The hon. Gentleman is right that at that point they can move anywhere in the area, but the experience of Australia is that they do not. They have put down roots and stay where they have settled. That has had the desired effect of contributing to population growth in those areas.
I shall not give way any more. I have been unusually generous in doing so and I must make progress.
We object to the language in the motion and the fact that the Chairman of the House of Lords Committee on Economic Affairs should be cited as a sage on the matter. His Committee regrettably ignored the evidence of two extremely distinguished macro-economists, Professor Steve Nickell and Professor David Blanchflower, which was nevertheless cited in the report. Professor Nickell said that immigration might reduce the equilibrium rate of unemployment. Blanchflower said the same thing in different terms—that immigration had lowered the natural rate of unemployment. The Committee seems not to have understood what that meant. It means clearly that the economy could have dynamic gains and produce more output without unsustainable inflationary pressure. That, in turn, would boost income per head.
I also regret that the motion contains nothing about better integration and the common values of tolerance and respect for the rule of law. Those are a key part of proper policy. It is appalling, for example, that the Government have cut the teaching of English as a foreign language. Without a stress on the integration of our existing migrant communities, the Conservative party risks sending out a subliminal message at variance with the wording of its motion. I hope that that is not intentional; it is, however, the effect, and we regret it.
We welcome much in the Government amendment, but the inclusion of identity cards for foreign nationals on its own is enough to rule out our support. The cards are entirely symbolic, as foreign nationals have passports already; they have been targeted for ID cards for no better reason than to accustom the rest of us to the cards’ introduction and because they will not have votes at the next general election. Judging by their amendment, the Government’s migration policy is merely moving from the chaotic to the emblematic. In neither case do they deserve our support, and we oppose their amendment.
I wish to make two very simple points. I speak as joint chairman of the all-party group on balanced migration; no doubt the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), the other chairman, will also speak if he manages to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
First, I want to emphasise the impact that recent levels of immigration have had on many of our constituents, who have not been heard about in this debate—certainly not during the last contribution. Secondly, I want to mention what I thought was new from the Home Secretary. Conservative Front Benchers, of course, wanted to make much of what they thought was the difference between the views of the Home Secretary and those of the immigration Minister; perhaps a careful study of Hansard tomorrow will suggest that that difference is less than they were hoping for.
What we have not heard so far in this debate, for good reasons, is the voice of our constituents. They have been on the receiving end of immigration. It is all very well to give a partial view, based on what the House of Lords report said about the gains or non-gains of immigration in respect of the impact on our national income. However, we ought also to think about what immigration has meant in human terms. In the recent past, we have experienced in this country a rate of immigration the like of which we have never experienced. It would be extraordinary if a country as densely populated as ours could take that rate of immigration with no adverse consequences for some of our constituents, particularly the low-paid ones.
I am listening with real interest to my right hon. Friend, who has a lot of experience in these matters. As the child of a migrant myself, having grown up in the ’70s and ’80s at schools in this country, and often at times of depression, I think that there was far more racism in our schools then than there is now. I accept the fact that there are issues of churn. However, to be fair, if we look at cohesion across the board, we see that more than 80 per cent. of people in our local communities feel that they live in a cohesive community.
I am particularly grateful for that intervention and would like to emphasise the key words that my hon. Friend uttered. He was here as a child, newly arrived, when the economy was not booming. One of the things that I so welcomed about the speech by my hon. Friend the immigration Minister is that he was clearly looking at a country in which—let me put it euphemistically—a boom might not go on for ever. We have a duty to plan for the worst, but we should obviously hope for the best. I emphasise that it would be inconceivable for anyone in this House to argue that the levels of immigration we have experienced have had no impact on the chances of employment for many of our lowest-paid constituents, or that they have had no impact on wage rates. Of course we can see gains when we look at the global figures, but they look a lot more sparse when they are averaged out among all of us. Levels of immigration have given rise to a new servant class in this country.
The hon. Gentleman took a very long time, and I am anxious that other Members should get a chance.
The reintroduction of a servant class for those of the upper middle class has clearly meant very big gains for them, and has significantly changed their standards of living. It has not been so good for those at the bottom of the pile who have been competing for those jobs. My first point is that at least there is now some agreement among all parties that we have experienced record levels of migration to this country, and although that has had some beneficial effects, it would be absurd to argue that it has not had some less beneficial effects, particularly for the poorest members of society, which is my second point.
My third point is that we ought to be careful about the idea of the society to which we belong. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) raised that point just now. We do not know the consequences for people’s sense of identity, and that of those around them, when they have been subjected to levels of immigration that we have never experienced in our history. We are talking about 25 times what we have normally experienced. Perhaps we have the most extraordinary ability to adapt, but I wonder about that.
I want to come back to this point, if I have time. At a time when the Government are developing a positive view of citizenship, I hope that that view embraces my constituents who are as English, or British, as I am. All of us need our sense of national identity defined and reaffirmed. It is not merely something that we want newcomers to our society to embrace; there is a real loss of identity, regardless of immigration, among the host population itself. I would like the idea of an earned citizenship to be extended to all of us. We should not take it automatically that just because we are born here, we know what it is like and what is expected of us as citizens in our society.
The hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) looks puzzled by that, which shows the extent of the problem. If we had been in this Chamber in Edwardian times, we would have all had a clear idea that one of our central duties was to teach ourselves and the population the idea of being a good citizen. For 50 years in this country, we have somehow assumed that people get that idea by osmosis. It is quite clear, when we look at the disorder in our streets—the rise in levels of violence and so on—that ideas of citizenship do not automatically pass from one generation to another. While it is crucial for the question of immigration that we look at how we earn our citizenship—the Government call it positive citizenship—we need to extend the idea to embrace all of us.
The last factor that my constituents would want represented in the debate is that we have experienced, since the end of 1992, growth that this country has never experienced before. Sadly, it looks as if that growth is now faltering. It is foolish to think that the policies that may have been appropriate during the most rapid economic growth that we have ever experienced will also work during a downturn. Therefore, I applaud what the immigration Minister said in sounding a note that acknowledged that the Government realise that in an economy where there might be fewer jobs, we might need a very different immigration policy from the one that we have pursued in the recent past.
That brings me to my second, crucial point, which is one that the cross-party group on balanced migration has tried to make. In the past, we have assumed that the needs of the economy can be served in a way that allows people who come here to work to gain citizenship automatically. The Home Secretary made a very important point in her speech, which was lost in some quarters of the House. It was that we ought now to put up for question the idea that someone who has been here for five years should automatically gain citizenship. If that is so, I do not see much difference between the speech that we have heard today from the Home Secretary and the two speeches that we have heard so far from the immigration Minister.
The main point that the cross-party balanced migration group has been trying to introduce into the debate in this place and in the country is that the immediate needs of the economy for people to come here and fill vacancies that cannot be filled by people who are already here do not necessarily mean that those people ought automatically to get citizenship. The main thrust of our argument is that the needs of the economy are different from the needs of citizenship and the wider society.
What I hope we will hear from the Government—perhaps we will hear an even clearer statement when my hon. Friend the Minister winds up later—is that earned citizenship here will be capped. We would not expect the Minister to say what that cap should be at this early stage of the debate, given that although the Opposition claim that capping the number of people coming here to work has long been their policy, the hon. Member for Ashford could not tell us where that cap might be set.
I want to finish now, if I may.
However, it is important that we in the House begin to think of a two-part points system: points to come here, so that people come here only because there are vacancies that cannot be filled by people who are already here, and then points to earn citizenship. If we can send out the message that we are going to break the link between the needs of the economy and growing the population through immigration, this debate that the Opposition have called will have been well worth while.
I commend the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on his speech and hope that the House listened with great care to what he said in this important debate.
For centuries the British isles have been a destination for immigrants and a source of emigrants. The flow of people has contributed to one of the strongest societies and one of the most dynamic economies in the world. Likewise, Britons have emigrated across the world, taking with them their skills and our customs, traditions and, of course, language. The benefits of migration are therefore not in any doubt. Our country, just like any other, would be much the poorer but for the contribution that immigrants have made here and that Britons have made overseas.
However, I hope that the House paid attention to the points that the right hon. Gentleman made. Many of us believe, as do many of our constituents—their voices have been woefully under-heard in the Chamber—that we should reflect the deep anxiety in the country and that we must ease the pressure that the sheer scale of current immigration is placing on our public services, environment and, indeed, the cohesion of our society.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, he and I arrived at many of the same conclusions—he rather ahead of me—and decided to form the cross-party group on balanced migration. The purpose was to try to have a rational debate based on the facts—an extremely unusual thing in this debate—to put forward some positive and workable proposals, and to listen to the ideas that others wish to put forward in a rather more forgiving atmosphere. To that end we sent every hon. Member a copy of our booklet, which sets out a new approach to controlling immigration and which was headed by the right hon. Gentleman “Balanced migration”. He and I are very grateful to the Home Secretary for receiving us and for giving us an encouraging and courteous reception. We now have high hopes from the words that have been expressed by the immigration Minister.
I want to deal briefly with two misconceptions. Some people say that recession means that immigration is no longer an issue. Others point to departing Poles and draw the same conclusion. We have published research this week that clearly shows that, during the three recessions of the past 38 years—1975-76, 1981-82 and 1993—immigration did indeed decline for a year or two during each one. It then picked up afterwards. Indeed, it has picked up dramatically since 1997, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said. This is clearly no answer to the immigration problem, unless of course we are to live in an endless recession.
On the second point, it is true that some Poles and other European Union migrants are going home, but others are still coming. The probability is that arrivals and departures will come into balance in a few years’ time. The conclusion to draw, therefore, is that the bulk of continuing immigration will inevitably be from outside the EU and could therefore be controlled if the Government had the political will to do so. Already, in 2006, 68 per cent. of foreign immigration was from countries outside the European Union.
All of us who are concerned about this matter were delighted that the new Minister suggested at the weekend that the Government were now thinking afresh on the principles that underpin immigration policy. That is greatly to be welcomed. Let me remind the House precisely what he said:
“This Government isn’t going to allow the population to go up to 70 million. There has to be a balance between the number of people coming in and the number of people leaving.”
That implies two things. First, it implies that there will be a limit on immigration. Secondly, it suggests that the Government appear to accept the thrust of our argument that, to stabilise our population, immigration should be brought into line with emigration.
This change is certainly necessary. According to the Government’s own statistics, England’s population will increase by nearly 10 million by 2031, and 70 per cent. of that increase—that is, 7 million people, or seven times the population of Birmingham—will be a result of immigration. They will all need to be housed. The Government’s own household projections show that immigration will account for 33 per cent. of new households. When the figures are updated with the 2006 population estimates, the percentage will be closer to 39 per cent. Clearly, further action is essential.
If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to accept that there has to be action on the 68 per cent. of immigration that comes from outwith the EU, does he have a policy for dealing with the 32 per cent.—on his figures—that comes from within the EU? Surely that is the elephant in the room. We cannot control the external migration if we are not prepared to control the internal migration.
That is certainly the elephant in the hon. Gentleman’s room. The answer is that we are obliged by treaty obligation to allow those people to come here and to move freely through the European Union, just as we can. The question is whether the Government have the will to control the other part of the equation, and whether they choose to exert it.
I give the Government credit for moving towards a major reform of the immigration system; credit where credit is due. But the points-based system lacks one essential and critical aspect: a limit on the number of people allowed to settle here. The reality is that a points system with no limit on the numbers able to come and settle here is largely pointless. This brings me to a key point of the cross-party group’s proposal, which was elegantly espoused by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. It is that we should split economic migration from settlement. We must balance the needs of the economy with those of society, while honouring our EU and other commitments.
I will not give way.
Hence our proposal arises to permit skilled workers from outside the EU to come to Britain, provided that both the vacancy and their qualifications are genuine, but on the strict understanding that it is for a maximum of four years. The number allowed to settle here would thus be confined to a small number selected by a further points system.
The longer-term policy aim would be to bring immigration into line with emigration—hence the term “balanced migration”. The Minister said in his BBC interview on Sunday that he would ensure that breaking the limit between economic migrants and settlement would be part of Government policy. That, too, is extremely welcome. However, like many hon. Members and members of the public, we have all come to treat the Government’s words with caution and, in light of today, they clearly need to carry a health warning.
Let me end, if I may, by asking the Minister three very simple questions, which I would like him to answer at the end of the debate. First, given that he does not want the population of the UK to rise to 70 million, he must now want to limit immigration to the UK. Will he confirm to House tonight that there will be such a limit on the number of people allowed to settle here? Yes or no? Secondly, how will that limit work in practice? Thirdly, will he confirm that the Government will break the link between non-EU citizens being given the right work here and the almost automatic right that they have to settle here? The truth is this—that if our population is to be stabilised, which it absolutely must be, immigration has to be substantially reduced. What the House needs to know is the scale of the Government’s effort, commitment and will to bringing down the scale of current immigration.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who made excellent speeches. In welcoming this debate, may I make the point that immigration has been the taboo subject of British politics for far too long? The reason is self-evident. Ever since Enoch Powell made his infamous speech in Birmingham back in 1968, politicians from mainstream parties—with a few exceptions who have perhaps been brave, foolish or sometimes both—have avoided the subject for fear of uttering a wrong word or saying something politically incorrect, and thus being labelled as racist or anti-immigrant.
Because mainstream politicians have not debated such issues as numbers and the effect that immigration might—I say might—have on public services, particularly in inner-city areas, the only parties that have talked about those issues have been racist or xenophobic parties such as the British National party, which has been left with a wide-open field to talk about immigration on its own terms and to draw its own conclusions.
There is not the slightest doubt, furthermore, that the wider electorate want the mainstream parties to debate this issue. In nearly every single opinion poll asking voters what issues they are most concerned about, immigration appears as one of the top five priorities. For us to ignore the fact that the electorate want us to debate the issue and instead to peddle the simplistic mantra that globalisation is wonderful, that we need immigration to grow the economy and that the trickle-down effect benefits everybody, while ignoring the very real pressures that an increasing population puts on public services, particularly in inner-city areas, does a great disservice to the cause of good community relations in our multicultural society.
As I have already said, I welcome this debate and I also welcome the frank comments made by the new immigration Minister, irrespective of whether he subsequently retracted them. I support the Government’s steps to make the immigration system stronger and fairer, particularly to ensure that only applicants with skills needed here can come to work or study and that newcomers learn to speak English. But, above all, I welcome the fact that the Government will now ensure that people visiting the United Kingdom are counted in and counted out. At long last, we will know how many people enter the country legally each year, and how many leave.
For a number of years, after embarkation controls were abandoned by the previous Conservative Government, I tabled questions asking how many people came legally to visit and study, and how many left. The Home Office consistently told me that an average of nearly 900,000 people came every year, yet it had no idea whatever how many left. That was nonsense, and I welcome the change proposed by the Home Secretary.
The constituency that I represent—Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath—is probably the most diverse and multicultural in the country. Apart from what we could call the old immigration—from Ireland, Scotland and Wales—there has been immigration into Birmingham and my constituency from Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Yemen and, latterly, from Somalia and the horn of Africa. The multicultural make-up of my constituency and Birmingham has added to the vitality of that great city.
We must be careful, however, that we do not undermine the excellent community relations that we have built up in that city. The spectre of rising unemployment poses the greatest threat to multicultural cohesion because it is self-evident that if unemployment rises, we need fewer people coming to the country, as the new immigration Minister has said, especially when in parts of my constituency, in Sparkbrook, the unemployment rate has remained above 15 per cent. even during the 10 years of economic growth and falling unemployment nationally.
As always, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and, as always, I agree with him.
It is right that we debate the controversial issue of immigration rather than avoiding it. I support and welcome the all-party balanced migration group, set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex, and its informed contribution to the debate about immigration. My constituents—many of whom, as I said, are immigrants—want an immigration system that is firm and fair. I welcome much that the Government are doing, and I commend the amendment.
I think it beyond dispute that the Government have mishandled immigration. In recent months, they have been active in trying to address a problem that they themselves allowed to grow over the previous 10 years. When they came into office in 1997, the attitude was that it was racist to talk about control of immigration—indeed, I should know, because I was talking about the control of immigration. The initial signals sent out were all that the system would be relaxed: the primary purpose rule was abolished; an amnesty was granted to 25,000 asylum seekers who had not even had their applications processed; and some high-profile deportation decisions taken by the previous Government were reversed. So, the signal went out: the system is now more relaxed.
Fairly recently, when the Opposition were asking for quotas—which we were allowed to have under EU law, and as some other countries were proposing to have—when we faced the likely influx of immigration from eastern Europe, the Government’s attitude was that we were being alarmist, that we had it wrong, and that it would all be perfectly all right on the night. That was a disastrous prediction, which has proved to be wholly without foundation. I think that there is merit in some of the Home Secretary’s proposals, and I welcome some of them, but they have come very late.
We all tend to talk about immigration as if it were a single mass lump, but it is roughly divisible into three separate strands, although of course there are sub-strands. The first strand is work permits. On the whole the work permits system benefits us: we compensate for the deficiency of skills by bringing people in. However, what was said by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is very true: over the years, it has become a rather stealthy method of entering the country for the purpose of home settlement, rather than merely to gain work at a restrictive time. Although there may be nothing new about that, if we are now thinking seriously about how to limit immigration, I think it right for us to examine the link between those who come here lawfully on work permits, but as a means of—equally lawful, at the moment—permanent settlement.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way, because I wanted to intervene on the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on exactly this point.
The scheme that you propose has been tried in both Switzerland and Germany. It is the Gastarbeiter scheme. The truth is that in a developed democracy, when the period for which people have come here to work has ended, there is not the will to throw them out again. As a result, they settle and, eventually, must be absorbed. I am afraid that you are going for a soft option which does not exist.
Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have heard you make no pronouncement on this subject for a very long time.
I must tell the hon. Gentleman that if the problem is absence of will, we shall have to find the will. We shall have to implement the systems. That is what today’s debate is is about: it is about finding the will that has been remarkably lacking in the past.
The second strand of immigration is the equally lawful but vast-scale immigration from the eastern bloc of the European Union. We had an answer to that, if only we had implemented it: to set quotas. It is possible that some of it will right itself, with people going back because of the economic downturn, but we need to take a much firmer approach to understanding that even if immigration is welcome—and I welcome the Polish plumbers: they are terrific—if it is on an unpredicted large scale, it will put a sudden pressure on the infrastructure with which we simply will not be able to cope. One of the reasons for the deep resentment that sometimes emerges from various sections of the community is not that the immigrants are unpleasant and not that people do not want them, but people’s recognition that schools, hospitals, housing and other services simply are not geared up to deal with a sudden influx of that order.
Yes, I do. I think that experience teaches us that we must find some method of ensuring that we can exert more control than we have exerted so far.
The third strand, which I particularly want to address because it has been very much pushed to one side in recent public debate—swamped by the Polish plumbers—is the asylum system, which is still the biggest source of abuse of immigration in this country. It is the easiest way for people to come in clandestinely and then utter the magic words “I claim asylum”. They must then be admitted to the country while we examine their claims. As this is a country without identity cards and with a flourishing black economy, even now, it is also a country in which it is phenomenally easy to disappear. It is very hard to—
I want to pursue this issue for a while as it relates directly to a point raised by the Home Secretary. This is a phenomenally easy country in which to disappear and the message that goes out is, “If you can get in to Britain, you are very unlikely to be removed.” Twice today, the Home Secretary came up with a ludicrous statistic: that we are removing somebody from this country every eight minutes. Once the Government have stated targets, it is, as the Home Affairs Committee pointed out, the soft targets that are removed.
We do not have an army of immigration officials trying to find those people who came over here, registered and then disappeared into the system, precisely because they are mighty hard to find. Instead, we have people going to the doorsteps of those who have stuck by the rules, given their names and addresses to the Home Office and reported faithfully every week. Before now, on constituents’ behalf, I have given chapter and verse in this regard. Then we hear, “Oh look, it is a removal.” We must distinguish between removing those who are seriously abusing the system and removing those who have stuck to the rules but who may then be unsuccessful. There is a huge distinction and it is one that the Home Secretary was very careful not to make.
I can only say that I stand by the policy that I have always advocated for the control of the abuse, not the use, of the asylum system. I believe that all new asylum seekers should be housed in secure reception centres while we consider their claims, so that we can distinguish much more quickly the genuine ones who get clogged up in the system. That cannot, of course, be done by Tuesday afternoon; it has to be rolled out. Under that system, we will know where those to whom we will say no—which can be 80 per cent. in any given year—are, and will be able to remove them. Then the message will go out: “Come to Britain with a false or flimsy claim and you will be detained, dealt with quickly and sent back.” Nobody will pay £5,000 to a human trafficking agency for that.
That is not to say that we do not welcome those who are genuine, but simply trying to solve this by finding—by whichever way it is done—some overall number, as the Home Secretary seemed to suggest, and saying that everything has to be dealt with within that number, will not allow us to make the distinction between those who use the system and those who abuse it.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. Does she agree that in addition to the abuse, perhaps the greatest issue as regards asylum seekers are the legacy cases—the 430,000 people in this country whose whereabouts are known to the Government and whose cases are still unresolved? Does she agree that that is a real and pressing issue?
It is obviously in the interests of fairness and efficiency to resolve people’s cases. With my system acting as a deterrent to people coming in, we would have fewer cases to deal with and we would be able to resolve them much more quickly. I regard my proposed system as a contribution towards greater fairness and efficiency. As I said, there are genuine people clogged up in the queue.
Does the right hon. Lady accept that if we had a Government who were more successful in controlling our borders, the case that she is making would become more important as people sought other ways of entering when, up to now, they have found it easy to come here legally?
The right hon. Gentleman and all the House will accept that, whatever we do, people will try to find ways round it. That is why I am trying to counteract such disappearances.
However, none of this is to say that we should not welcome genuine asylum seekers. We live in safety; we will walk out of this place tonight without fear of arrest or persecution because, even under this Government who try to police everything, we still live in a reasonably free country. We should remember that, but that is not to say that we should ever tolerate the consistent and growing abuse of our system, which does a disservice not only to the indigenous community, but to those who are welcome here and who seek to join us on a lawful basis.
It is an honour and a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), and I do not mean to cause offence, so I hope she will not mind too much if I say that Poland is not in eastern Europe. This is not as difficult as the difference between Kentish men and men of Kent; a brief examination of an atlas will show that Poland is in fact at the heart of Europe.
Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I stand corrected.
It is absolutely right that almost every contributor to this timely and important debate has mentioned the extraordinarily beneficial impact of immigration on this country. These islands are, in fact, a nation of immigrants. I sometimes think that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) is probably the only purely English Member of this House. If we think about what makes up our nation, it is clear that we have been refreshed by constant waves of immigration. However, despite—or, maybe, because—of this, we have never been able, at least during my brief time here, to discuss this subject objectively and sensibly; we seem to have squeezed ourselves into, as it were, a lobster pot of liberalism, whereby we are so anxious to avoid giving offence that we cannot realistically discuss it. One of the easiest things for Members to do in this House is to make a speech in defence of unlimited immigration to this country, and to talk about the great advantages of that, and always to play the race card in a way that is not normally thought of, as it is actually playing the racist card. We can easily make a speech that is something of a Southwark squirm, going on and on about the great advantages and simply refusing to accept that there are also profound differences and disagreements.
The hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green)—who appears to have been temporarily deported from his place in the Chamber—made an extraordinarily interesting contribution, but he was wearing the fixed smile tinged with anxiety of the charity mugger as he was trying to make his case, because the point he was making sits ill with the reality of his party’s actions when it was in power. I cannot be the only hon. Member who remembers that in 1997 people would come to advice surgeries who had done 14 years on student visas—14 years doing degree after degree, and constantly coming back and retraining. After 14 years, many of them were married and had children, and it would have been a vicious cruelty to have then forcibly removed them from this country.
We have heard about legacy cases. There were people coming to my surgery in the late ’90s and the beginning of this century who had been here for so long that they had almost forgotten where they came from, and these people were in many instances supported and subsidised by crooked solicitors and lawyers. If there is one thing we should do above all it is to continue in our examination of, and clamping down on, those blood-sucking leeches who take cash from the weakest and most vulnerable people by holding in front of them the false promise of British citizenship in exchange for a lump sum in cash. That was the reality then.
I would be grateful if my hon. Friend could find the time during his contribution to respond to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the co-founders of the group on balanced migration of which I am a member, of breaking in two the process of arrival here and ultimate settlement, with just a stage for points to be obtained for employment purposes, and then points at a later date, perhaps, to be obtained for settlement. Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is important to break that automatic link?
My hon. Friend seldom rises to speak in the House without enlightening us. He scatters the caliginosity that sometimes reigns here, and as ever I agree completely with him. He is absolutely right that there has been an automaticity in the process. The assumption was encouraged, in many cases by those who should have known better, that once a person had worked here for a certain period, the process would be just as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said. It was assumed that someone would claim asylum, be refused, appeal, be refused, go to an asylum and immigration tribunal, be refused, make a human rights appeal, be refused and then somehow get exceptional and then indefinite leave to remain. They would then become a British citizen. It was a tedious, long process that utterly destroyed any attempt to have managed, let alone balanced, immigration.
We are discussing not specifically asylum seekers but the Australian points-based system, secure borders and border controls. Above all, we are discussing a profound and fundamental disconnect between what is often said in this House and what is felt, feared and expressed by our constituents and in the wider world. I am not saying that we are guilty of some trahison des clercs, but we seem not to be in tune with the majority of people in this country. In that darkness, extremism grows. If we do not confront the issue utterly seriously, people who have no interest in democracy will flourish. That is the true problem, and that is why it is so important that we discuss the matter today.
No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend on this occasion, but I do believe in a managed, balanced migration system, wherever the migrants come from. We are a European nation and part of Europe, and I am proud to be a European and a Londoner. We gain massively from our membership of the European Union and I see absolutely no problem with it, but it does not completely devolve power and control over our own borders. That is why, given all that I have heard from the Minister, I salute him and am immensely grateful to him for raising these often uncomfortable subjects. He has done the House and the nation a great service. Since April, 11,000 potential illegal immigrants have been detected and prevented from crossing the channel. That sort of action and work and the move towards a border agency are very important.
The hon. Member for Ashford talked about a border police that would be responsible for removals. When I am on holiday, I sometimes find it embarrassing to admit my job, and sometimes I suffer from difficulties. Can the hon. Gentleman imagine what sort of person would admit to being a member of the deportation squad? That is what we are talking about—a sort of Waffen-SS of the Border and Immigration Agency. The people involved would have the specific job of being deporters. Who would do that, and how could they do it objectively? That is why the existing structure of the UK Border Agency is so much more sensible, so much better and so much more with the grain of public opinion.
Before the hon. Gentleman completely wipes the slate clean about how these matters were handled in the past and praises the fact that we are now able to talk about them in a responsible atmosphere, will he concede that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and I introduced regulations to control asylum benefits and made many of the same arguments about the difficulties of controlling asylum and immigration when we were in office, we did not get the same considered reception from the Opposition Benches? The undercurrent from the Opposition was that our motives were wrong, which is not how the current Opposition are prepared to handle the debate. We would have been able to have much better discussions had the Opposition at the time handled the matter differently.
Not for the first time, people conflate asylum with immigration. We are not talking about asylum. It has been heard strongly from Conservative Members that no one is talking about resiling from our position on people seeking asylum in this country. That is not what we are talking about; we are talking about people who come to this country by different routes, be it those who come as students and subsequently stay, or those who come through arranged marriages and then enter into a society and a community, which is not in their interests or ours. We are not talking about simple asylum per se, because, as far as I am aware, no one in the Chamber is saying that we should resile from our international obligations to offer asylum. Denying benefits to asylum seekers very much comes into that category, and if the hon. Gentleman did not receive the support of all parties in this House, it was perhaps because of the point that he was making and the way in which he was making it. Surely we can agree that there cannot be one person in this Chamber who does not feel that we must have a fair system that works and is in the national interest. The disconnect worries me, because my constituents, like most of our constituents, do not believe that our system is fair. That is why I support the Prime Minister’s amendment.
This follows on from what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, and it leaves aside the question of asylum. When we proposed—I was the poor muggins who had to take it through—to oblige employers to check up on the right to work of the people whom they were employing, we were cried down by Labour Members, who said that it was unreasonable. Everything has changed. The tone has changed. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that Labour Members have not contributed much to that change?
I accept that the tone has changed since the late Enoch Powell, when he was Health Minister, spent the early 1960s going round the West Indies begging people to come here. I accept that it has changed since the Opposition proposed some fantasy island where asylum seekers would be housed. I accept that the tone has changed, but I hope that, like me, the right hon. Lady and all in this Chamber will accept that the current situation is not about race; it is about numbers and volume. That is more important for our nation and the people whom we are sent here to represent than any possible partisanship on this matter. We have to go forward, accepting that everybody has made mistakes in the past and that we are living with the dragon’s teeth sown then. We have to address this issue tonight, and the amendment tabled by the Prime Minister lists a safe, sane and sensible way forward that will ultimately unite, not divide.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, which is so different in tone and content from so many debates that this House has had on immigration over the years. A number of distinguished contributions have been made, including those by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), and the hon. Members for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) and for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound).
The Government’s case on immigration up to now—we are about to find out whether or not it has changed as a result of the appointment of the new immigration Minister—has been based on three pillars. First, that mass immigration is economically necessary and brings substantial economic benefits; secondly, that mass immigration is socially beneficial, giving us diversity and cultural benefits that are wholly positive; thirdly, as a consequence of the first two, that the only reason anyone can have to oppose mass immigration is bigotry and a bigoted hostility based on a caricature of all immigrants as scroungers, criminals, layabouts and ne’er-do-wells, that we should have no truck with that and that any opponent of mass immigration must be motivated by bigotry and hostility to immigrants.
As far as I am concerned, I have never accepted that caricature of immigrants. I believe it to be, essentially, the reverse of the truth, which is that most people who come to this country to live, work and settle are hard-working, law-abiding and motivated only by a desire to do better for themselves and their families. The caricatures sometimes portrayed in some of the tabloids are the reverse of the truth.
However, because I do not accept the first two pillars on which the Government’s case has been based, I have always thought that there are other reasons why we should question the need for mass immigration. I shall not dwell on each of the supposed economic benefits that the Government have from time to time suggested, because I have rebutted them in a pamphlet entitled “Too much of a good thing? Towards a balanced approach to immigration”. Its title presaged the formation of the all-party group on balanced migration. Those supposed benefits were also more authoritatively refuted by the House of Lords Committee report on immigration, which has not received an adequate response from this Government.
I know of no serious study that has found any substantial economic benefits from mass immigration accruing to this or any other country. The Canadian royal commission concluded:
“The broad consensus…is that high levels of immigration will increase aggregate variables such as labour force, investment and real gross income, but cause…real wages to decline.”
A similar conclusion was reached by a similar high-level US study set up by Congress. In this country, the Government’s favourite think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, published a study by Mark Kleinman that concluded:
“There is not a compelling long-term case for increased immigration purely in terms of economic benefits.”
The leading economist on such matters, Professor Borjas, has concluded that the economic benefits from immigration are small, and not a single academic body has concluded that they are high. So the Government’s case, as far as the economics are concerned, has always lacked substance. That is not to say that we should have no immigration, but the case for mass immigration as economically necessary is wrong.
I have often said that immigration is like a lubricant, not a fuel. Cars need a certain amount of oil, otherwise they will not go. If they have lots more oil put in, they do not go any faster—indeed, they clog up. Immigration is not the fuel that is needed to make an economy grow faster. Of course we should allow some immigration, to lubricate the economy, but we should not allow or encourage mass immigration in the belief that it is economically necessary.
I do not think that they are either necessary or desirable, for the simple reason that there is little net migration from one wealthy country to another. There has been some immigration from the new poorer countries that have come into the EU, and we should have exercised the powers that we had under the treaty to limit that. We did not, it is too late and I would not advocate leaving the EU in an attempt to put the clocks back—because that is what would be necessary to change the situation. In the longer term, there is likely to be little net migration within the EU unless and until we are foolish enough to allow Turkey in without appropriate measures to deal with the potential demand from that very large and very poor country.
The co-chairman of the US Senate committee, Professor Teitelbaum, enunciated what he called Teitelbaum’s law—that there is no such thing as temporary immigration from a poor country to a rich country. The counterpart is that flows between developed countries are normally for comparatively short periods, five or 10 years, and reverse themselves.
As for the alleged social benefits that flow from mass immigration, I accept that some immigration does bring the benefits of diversity and cultural variety, but those benefits do not increase proportionately with the numbers. Having one Indian restaurant is fine, as is having two or three Indian restaurants, but 10 times as much benefit is not gained from 10 Indian restaurants, just as mass numbers of people with different cultures do not bring proportionately greater benefits than comparatively modest numbers. The idea that we need to allow unlimited—or mostly unlimited—immigration to achieve some of the benefits of diversity and cultural enrichment is mistaken.
The Communities and Local Government Committee visited Peterborough and talked to residents, many of them from different ethnic backgrounds. They said that the problem was that the new influx was causing strains because of its sheer volume. It was not the ethnicity or the diversity that were the problem, but the sheer pace of change, and that was causing problems in settled ethnic minority communities.
That is certainly true, and I found that when I represented much of the seat now represented with such distinction by my hon. Friend in St. Albans. I have represented large numbers of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and other ethnic groups, as I now do Sikh and other groups in my constituency. Many of them have grave reservations about the impact of continued mass immigration on the stability of their communities.
Sometimes there is something rather patronising and fundamentally racist—in an anti-British sense—about some of the arguments. As the hon. Member for Ealing, North almost suggested, we are held to be in need of a constant influx of people because we need refreshment and strengthening, without which we poor Brits could not survive. Of course we want to welcome a flow of people from abroad, but the idea that everybody who comes to this country is so superior to those already here is a bit of an absurdity.
In parodying the hon. Gentleman, I was taking over his normal role, and I apologise for that.
I became interested in the issue of immigration not primarily because of the economic, social or other consequences, but because I was puzzled about the constant rise in the targets for new house building imposed on my constituency. When I looked at the figures, I found that the driver was net immigration into this country which, according to the numbers to which the Government have admitted, will account for a third of the expected population growth and household formation. If we allow for the increased projection in immigration, the figures show that more than 40 per cent. of new housing in the UK is required to accommodate the net inflow from abroad. That is absurd. If we had a more balanced migration policy, with those coming to live, settle and work here roughly balanced by those returning home or emigrating, we would not have the same unmanageable pressures to build new homes in the south-east and on the green belt.
It is not unreasonable in a country—England—that is now the most densely populated country in Europe, even more than the Netherlands, for people to be concerned by and worried about that fact. Most of them are not motivated by bigotry or hostility to incomers, many of whom are their neighbours. If those people are members of the upper middle classes, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said, they have personally benefited from the availability of relatively cheap servant labour. Indeed, it constantly puzzles me that in this House, an issue that is essentially a class issue—the desire of the upper middle classes to have an unlimited supply of labour—is supported more by the party that is supposedly the party of the working class than it is by those on the Opposition Benches.
We need to know whether the Minister is changing policy or not, or whether he is simply making outrageous statements to get publicity, as has been done so many times by Home Office Ministers. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) deliberately used the word “swamped” to get controversial headlines. His successor, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) talked about driving out people who are a burden on this country. His successor, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) said that foreigners come to this country and steal our benefits. We have had all those statements, which get good headlines and create the impression that policy is being changed, but policy is unchanged and the number of people who are allowed to come here, to settle and to work in this country increases inexorably.
Last year, there was a gross inflow of more than 600,000 people to this country. That is far larger than anything that has been experienced, both proportionately and in absolute terms, by this country in the past. It is time that we changed the policy, as the Minister said that he would before he subsequently appeared to change his mind on the radio, backtracked and rowed away from the idea.
I begin by doing something that is very unusual for me—defending a Manchester United supporter; I understand that the Minister is one. I am not requesting a job by defending him, but I watched his performance on the TV and I thought he was straightforward. The proposals are to be welcomed.
The debate is also to be welcomed because, as several Members have said, the issue is very important among our voters. We do it a disservice by not bringing it to the attention of the House and speaking about it in a much more detailed and vigorous way. We must have the debate, and it is being conducted constructively. That is particularly true of the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). His proposals offer us a way of developing some consensus on the issue.
It is also right to want to discuss, consider and debate the question about the optimum population of the country. We have heard comments about the growing population in the south-east of England, the various environmental pressures that it gives rise to, and the population per square mile. It is legitimate to ask what numbers we think that the country, as a given area on the planet, can sustain.
It is right that such a legitimate discussion should be held in the context of the policies of a nation state. The debate about what is legitimate and what is within the realm of a nation state is critical at the moment. Over the past 20 years or so, we have seen the concept of a nation state denigrated by globalisation and the forces that have been unleashed by neo-liberal ideology. I would argue that in the past few weeks we have seen a classic example of what unregulated markets can do and of the chaos that spins out from markets being unregulated. Unless we manage migration, it has the same potential to cause massive repercussions and problems in our society. As I said, the concept of the nation state has been undermined by the supremacy of the neo-liberal theory that the world exists simply as a place in which the free movement of goods, capital and labour is to be supported at every turn.
Let me pick up on some of the comments made by the Conservatives. We have, in effect, had an incomes policy in this country for the past decade. That incomes policy is a migration policy. It has hit not the big earners, but the unskilled and the semi-skilled. If we refuse to accept that, we refuse to come into contact with reality. Any MP worth their salt gets out and about, and that is what they pick up. Evidence has already been quoted from the House of Lords Committee that was set up and from various Trades Union Congress reports showing that the net effect of mass migration has essentially been to drive down the wages, terms and conditions of the unskilled and the semi-skilled.
Some people trot out the argument that we have always had migration into this country. Let us stop and consider the historical examples. We are moving in completely different times from those that we have had before. Earlier, the example of the Huguenots was quoted. The edict of Nantes, as we all know, was revoked in 1685 and the Huguenots were faced with a choice—either they stayed in France or they left. It was a matter of life and death.
I owe my presence here to the large migration of the Irish community in the 1840s, following the failure of the potato crop. At the same time, the British empire was exporting food from Ireland, even though people were starving. The Irish came here because it was a matter of life and death. Similarly, one could argue that for the Jewish population that arrived at the turn of the century, following the pogroms in Russia, it was a matter of life and death. Commonwealth immigration in the 1950s and 1960s was essentially part of the political deal. We had exploited those countries for 100-odd years, and the deal was that they could have access to this country, too.
What drives the current movement? We have heard it expressed: people want to develop some form of capital to go back to their original country and set up a business. If the migration that we are experiencing at the moment is driven by no more than the “honourable” desire to drive a Mercedes, build up a little capital, get a big business and acquire the latest electrical goods, I will not be won over by that. That form of movement will be fought in the last ditch.
What steps can we take to address the huge population movement? I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), with his absolute obsession with asking everybody about their policy towards the EU, has left. If he were present, I would tell him that I think that we should be raising the point in the EU that nation states ought to have the ability to control migration, even within the EU. That is a sensible policy. If the institution is not flexible enough to respond to that, there must be question marks against it.
We cannot divorce mass migration movements from global inequality. People seek to migrate to the UK, to other countries in western Europe and even to the United States because they cannot have well-paid jobs in their own countries, because they have no proper health service and because they have no proper education. The role of the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation in determining the outcomes in their states has been particularly injurious. In accepting that this is a global issue, we need fairer trade and more aid. This is a global issue, but the essential instrument for addressing it is the nation state. We should focus on that in the future.
It is a pleasure to follow the thought-provoking contribution of the hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon). It has been an interesting debate, which has often been at cross purposes. I will probably have a share of that in my speech today. However, I very much agree with two speeches made by Labour Members, who said that the British National party has picked up support and votes only because mainstream politicians have so patently failed to articulate public concerns, to the extent that the only outlet for such worries about immigration is often to be found at the extremes of the political arena. Anyone who is complacent about these matters need only look at the BNP’s success at local elections to see that, week in and week out, in places where one would not expect the BNP to have even the tiniest bit of support, it is getting 15 per cent. to 20 per cent. in council by-elections.
Had we always made room for sensible, rational discussion on immigration, the immigration system would have been sharpened and improved to the benefit not just of the indigenous population—by which I mean both the black and white indigenous population—but of those seeking new lives in the UK. Those who seek to silence debate on this topic by crying racism should be under no illusions about the nature of the current system. It is, I am afraid, often confused, inequitable, unjust and so administratively chaotic that not only is the British taxpayer being failed but legitimate migrants and illegal immigrants alike are often being mistreated.
I hope that the House will forgive me for being slightly parochial, but I represent the Cities of London and Westminster constituency in the heart of our capital. Westminster especially—which to most British people is uninhabitable because of the exorbitant cost of renting or owning property here—is one of the top destinations for immigrants arriving in Britain for the first time. It is a constituency of the very rich and the very poor, and an area of incredible hyperdiversity and hypermobility. That causes some very real problems on the ground, and I spoke about them in the House only a couple of weeks ago when I set out the difficulty faced by Westminster city council in providing services for all those unaccounted for in census data. I am sure that those difficulties will be familiar to all hon. Members who represent other inner-city seats.
Immigration is the single biggest issue in my constituency postbag. It gives me—or I suppose it would be more honest for me to say my private office—daily exposure to the chaos that is rife in the Home Office system. I do not want to make an overly partisan point, as it is fair to say that many of the problems predate 1997. I suspect that they will remain for some years to come unless we get a grip on them.
The people who write to me are not necessarily voters, but my staff and I devote enormous amounts of time to trying to help them with their various complaints against the Home Office. In preparing this speech, I looked only at the last week of cases that have been brought to my attention. It was a light to medium case load, with nothing exceptional and no out-of-the-ordinary cases. From the replies that I have received from the Home Office, it is clear that there were three cases in which a constituent had arrived in the UK many years ago, had been denied asylum, had had numerous appeals rejected and yet was still living here—and that is a problem to which a number of other contributors to the debate have alluded.
In fact, one person had been told that he had no basis of stay and yet he resided—I can only assume mistakenly—in one of our precious social housing properties. That is heartbreaking, considering the number of letters that I get letters from lifelong Westminster residents who are forced to leave the capital as a result of being employed in low-paid jobs that make them just wealthy enough not to be considered a priority for social housing.
I do not wish to be accused of taking any of the Government’s actions out of context for political gain in this debate, so I shall simply read the UK Border Agency’s reply to another of my other constituency cases that came in this week. I shall call the constituent Mr. A, for privacy reasons, but the letter speaks for itself in exemplifying just how ludicrous our immigration system can be. It states:
“Mr A arrived in the UK and applied for asylum on 15 September 1996. The asylum claim was refused on Third Country grounds on 17 September 1996.”
So he arrived more than 12 years ago, and his asylum claim was refused just two days later. The letter continues:
“On 23 September 1996 it was decided that his claim should be considered substantively, and Mr A’s application for asylum was refused on 11 August 1998. Mr A applied for Further Leave to Remain on the grounds of marriage on 18 July 2000”.
The House should note that that was two years after he had been refused asylum.
“He requested that his application be considered together with his application for asylum. Mr A’s appeal against the decision to refuse him asylum was dismissed on 9 October 2001…Further representations were submitted on Human Rights grounds on 30 November 2001 and additional further representations were submitted on 22 December 2004”.
Again, another three years seem to have passed in the flick of an eye.
“Mr A was sent a family questionnaire for consideration under the terms of the Family Indefinite Leave to Remain Exercise on 8 March 2005. He was found to be ineligible due to an unspent criminal conviction on 5 October 2005.”
There was a further reconsideration of his application on 2 March 2006, and he was again found to be ineligible, as he had not declared that he had a criminal conviction. Further representations were submitted in June 2006 and a request for humanitarian protection was made at that stage.
The case remains outstanding. I am sorry to have gone into such detail, but it is not untypical of the sort of case that MPs see. Heavenly only knows when it will be resolved, but the whole sorry catalogue of events represents a relatively unexceptional constituency case and raises many questions. For instance, why, after he had been refused asylum so often, was this constituent not deported?
I could go into some detail about other, similar cases but I appreciate that time is tight in this debate. However, I feel that the easiest option for reducing the overall number of immigrants would be the most ill-advised route in many ways and, to that extent, I do not entirely agree with the contributions that have been made by hon. Members on either side of the House.
An ever-expanding number of non-EU nationals—and especially people working in highly skilled, global industries—are coming to this country and boosting our economy. A drastic reduction in that group would be neither desirable nor advisable. Similarly, we could relatively easily slash the number of non-EU students coming here to study, or prevent them from staying on to work for two years after graduation. However, I believe that the Labour Government have got that matter absolutely right over the past 10 years: we need to encourage that set of people, not least because many of them will return home as great ambassadors for this country in the decade to come.
Among the other groups of people who come to live here are the many dependants, relatives and would-be relatives of previous immigrants. They often arrive with very few skills and little understanding of the English language. I think that all hon. Members accept that that issue will continue to be very sensitive, and there are strong practical reasons why Members of Parliament who are in contact with the Home Office need to ensure that at least some of those immigrants will continue to come to these shores. A degree of hypocrisy is often evident: we all make great representations on behalf of our constituents because we recognise that there might be some electoral advantage down the line, but we also make strong statements about the generality of the matter. Complaints about immigration can be applied to each and every one of us, as Members of Parliament, just as much as they are to the Home Office.
It seems to me that we could also look to stem the number of asylum seekers who come here as political refugees, or indeed to restrict the major immigration influx coming from the EU. As many other hon. Members have pointed out today, however, we are signatories to several international agreements and we are also a signed-up member of the EU. Short of withdrawing from such treaties and reneging on our duties as an EU member state, there is little that we can do to stop such parties coming to our shores. Even so, it was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Elmet and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) make it clear that they felt that it should be possible for nations in an expanded EU to have some special immigration arrangements.
Given the severe limitations on our room to manoeuvre, it is all the more important that we deal effectively, swiftly and pragmatically with each and every person who makes an application to live here. I fear that the quota system for immigration will lead to a distortion of statistics, priorities and our economic needs. Above all, it is therefore crucial that we tighten the current decision-making process, stand firm once a decision has been made, and act quickly to remove any person found to have no basis of stay.
As other hon. Members have pointed out, the relatively clement economic weather until recently has allowed us to turn something of a blind eye to many of the problems that I have described. However, a continued refusal to get a grip on our immigration system risks causing conflict in British communities that will haunt us in the decades to come.
I see that the immigration Minister has returned to the Chamber, and I welcome him back to his place, as many of the comments that I intend to make will be aimed in his direction. I and many of my colleagues support his intervention in the debate over the weekend—certainly his first intervention, anyway.
I rise to speak against the rather negative motion tabled by the Conservative Opposition. In my short contribution, I shall draw on my own experience of representing the multi-ethnic and multicultural town of Reading for the best part of 25 years—first as a councillor and then, for the past 11 years or so, as its Member of Parliament. I will also draw on the evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee about the Government’s new points-based immigration system and the advantages that it will bring.
We all, if all too rarely, get moments of stunning clarity—others might call them flashes of inspiration—in our busy lives as Members of Parliament. Luckily for me, I was uncharacteristically inspired at an event one Saturday in the summer of 2004 in helping to produce a piece of work of which I am immensely proud. It became a book celebrating the contribution to Reading made by the people who came to our town from all over the world in search of a better life. Two years later, with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Reading borough council and local charities and volunteers, our book, “Routes to Reading”, was published, chronicling the stories of 19 people—from Bosnia to Barbados, from Italy to Ireland, from Uganda to Ukraine—who now make up the rich and diverse community of Reading. I urge other hon. Members to set up similar projects in their constituencies, particularly if, like me, they are sick to the back teeth of immigrant communities being regularly trashed by sections of the media who seem happy to do the hate-filled work of the British National party for them.
I will read into the record the background to the Reading immigrants project, as it gives a useful insight into the patterns of immigration to my town:
“The event was held at St. Giles church in Southampton Street and I was invited along in my capacity as a local MP with my predecessor Sir Anthony Durant”—
who some Conservative Members will remember with affection.
“Sitting at the front of the church I looked out on the sea of faces, many of whom I had known for most of the 20 years that I had spent in public life in Reading. There were people from St. Vincent, Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, Grenada and elsewhere. Somewhat morbidly I recalled how we were all aging fast and then I realised that unless steps were taken soon all these people’s memories and stories would be lost and an important part of the history of our town would never be told.
You see, Reading is a town based on immigration. Initially from rural areas in the south of England in the 19th century as people moved off the land to work in the factories, brick kilns and mills which sprang up as part of the industrial revolution. There followed further immigration from Wales, Scotland and Ireland as workers sought new opportunities not available to them in more economically depressed areas.
The stories collected by this project, of which a selection are reproduced here, tell of people fleeing war-torn Europe following the Second World War, Bosnia in the 1990s, and political persecution in Zimbabwe. They tell of people seeking security and freedom, a new life to overcome poverty or a desperate situation at home. They tell of separation and romance, some coming to join their partners, or to seek out new opportunities.”
My town is a diverse community with a proud record of good race relations. While it is legitimate for us to talk about community cohesion and the impact of large-scale migration, let us never fall into the trap of using language so intemperate that we demonise people who have made such a contribution to the country and communities in which we live.
Having celebrated the contribution made by the majority of hard-working members of our immigrant communities, I turn to the policies designed to ensure that migration is properly managed and that our systems are fair and transparent. I support the introduction of the points-based immigration system; indeed, my only regret is that the Government failed to introduce it much earlier. I have just returned from a Home Affairs Committee visit to India and Bangladesh, where we saw the points-based system in operation. It became clear to members of the Committee that it was working pretty well in the visa centres that we visited in Dhaka and Delhi. However, concerns were expressed in three areas. First, should there be an independent review of decisions, not just the administrative case review that takes place at the moment? Secondly, will global companies, many of which are based in India, be able to obtain the work permits that they need to enable their businesses to prosper? Thirdly—we have all read about this in the press—Bangladeshi restaurateurs were worried about potential shortages of trained curry chefs and their inability to qualify through the tier 2 process.
Having taken evidence—unlike the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), I was actually at the various meetings in Bangladesh—my personal view is that those concerns are unfounded or resolvable. For example, it would be perfectly possible to introduce a more transparent system into refusal decisions, but I do not think that anyone would want us to take the route of allowing for a judicial review and the inevitable delays that that would trigger. A judicial review in such circumstances would only jam up the process; and after all, a work permit is not an inalienable human right.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) said, we had an excellent meeting with the trade association, the National Association of Services and Software Companies, or NASSCOM—a body with more than 1,200 members, of which more than 250 are global companies from the UK, the United States, the European Union, Japan and China. It was clear from talking to the people at NASSCOM that on the whole the points-based system was working well, and that many of their initial fears were unfounded. Based on a study carried out in 2007, NASSCOM found that the average stay of employees of its member companies in the UK was 18 months, so the pattern of migration was short-term working rather than longer-term settlement.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s expertise having served on the Select Committee, does he feel that the points-based system could be used at times of economic downturn, as I would like, to bring about a net reduction in population, taking advantage of overall emigration from this country?
The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to bring my conclusions into the middle of my speech. I think that my hon. Friend the Minister would say that the points-based system, as opposed to a crude cap, gives us levers and valves that can be turned within the existing five tiers to manage the flow of numbers, but based against the needs of communities, public services and the economy. That is the difference between the two approaches.
The Conservative motion is somewhat incoherent. We have heard good contributions from Conservative Members that make the case for an overall cap in numbers. However, the motion recognises that nothing can be done about the flow of workers in and out of the EU. In that context, a cap would be fairly meaningless, and Conservative Members should reflect on that.
There is another reason why a crude cap should be approached very carefully. We heard from NASSCOM that the US quota system issues about 65,000 work permit visas annually. The quota opens on 1 April. By 6 April, there are about 150,000 applications, which are then dished out on a lottery basis. That hardly takes into account the needs of business or the changing needs of the economy over a 12-month cycle.
The Committee also considered what would be the likely impact on our economy if Britain were to introduce such a crude cap. We asked British high commission staff to estimate the impact on UK business of a quota on UK immigration. Overall, the value of bilateral UK-India trade alone is £9 billion annually. The staff considered that the Indian IT sector in the UK is worth £3 billion to £4 billion annually. It was made clear to us that if we took the approach of a crude cap, as proposed in the motion and elsewhere, much of that business would transfer to eastern European countries and the British economy stood to be the net loser. The points-based system is the right approach, but it will need Ministers who are forthright enough to say no, and who will turn the taps, pull the levers and use the mechanisms that the system delivers to control and manage migration.
I have worked with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and with parties across the House in trying to get justice for Gurkhas. How would that fit with the Conservatives’ proposed cap? If a quota system were introduced tomorrow, would they breach it if we got the right policy decision from the Home Secretary, as I hope we will in a few weeks’ time, to allow in a few Gurkhas each month—people who are prepared to put themselves in the way of a bullet to defend this country, and who we all want, in our heart of hearts, to be given settlement rights in this country? I am afraid that the Conservatives have not thought through their policies, despite the fact that they have made some good contributions.
Finally, I want to turn to what occurred in Sylhet as regards the concerns of the Bangladeshi restaurateurs. We have between 300,000 and 400,000 people of Bangladeshi origin in Britain, some of whom are in the most deprived communities. I do not accept the argument that it is only possible to recruit a trained Bangladeshi curry chef from people who are already living in Bangladesh. Nor do I accept the absurd contention in the latest edition of Curry Life—a magazine that I commend to all hon. Members—that the points-based system is completely racist. A system that applies equally to a white Russian, a black Jamaican or someone from south Asia is not racially motivated. It is about meeting the needs of the economy, and the needs of the restaurant sector can be met by internal UK recruitment or the establishment of a college in Sylhet, part-funded by the Department for International Development, which will allow the training of chefs to enable them to acquire the tier 2 qualification.
This is an important debate, if not a coherent motion. It is right and proper that we have a new approach to migration, but it is equally right and proper that we clearly acknowledge the massive contribution of immigrant communities to all our communities and to making Britain the liberal, tolerant society that we should all be proud of.
I am delighted by the welcome given by many Members on the Government Benches to this debate. When I was preparing my comments over the weekend, I wondered whether it would be an example of a brave new period of bipartisanship, given that the new immigration Minister, whom I welcome to his position, was making statements in the press following his appointment, such as
“On a common sense level there has to be a limit to the population”
“You have to have a policy that thinks about the population implication as well as the immigration implication”.
It seemed as though the Minister accepted a great deal of what we on the Opposition Benches have been saying consistently for a long time about the need to take proper account of the pressures on public services when considering population and migration policy—accepting the need for limits to net migration to help promote strong community cohesion and recognising that the previous uncontrolled approach to migration was in need of urgent change. Those initial comments appear to have been amplified and broadened over the past few days, even if they now seem to have been withdrawn. We look forward to seeing which Minister will respond to the debate and the interesting points that have been made.
The debate has exposed stark divisions on the Government Benches and highlighted yet again that the Government are talking tough, seemingly for the benefit of the tabloids, rather than taking action for the benefit of the country, and it has laid bare yet again confusion in the Home Office. I was sorry for the immigration Minister when I heard that in tonight’s Evening Standard the Prime Minister has put out a statement of support for him, which I hope will not add to his discomfort.
The debate has opened up some differences of opinion between the Home Secretary’s comments today and those of the Minister over the past few days. The Minister said:
“It’s been too easy to get into this country in the past and it’s going to get harder”,
yet the Home Secretary said today, “UK borders are amongst the most secure in the world.” The Minister said:
“I think it”—
that is, the immigration system—
“has been too lenient and I want to make it harder”,
whereas the Home Secretary said, “A robust system is in operation”. The Minister said:
“We have to have a population policy and that means at some point we will be able to set a limit on migration.”
He also said:
“On a common sense level there has to be a limit to the population”,
yet we heard again from the Home Secretary, “There is no need for a crude cap.” Finally, we hear that the Minister said that
“people didn’t believe the authorities knew what they were doing and there’s a very good reason for that—they didn’t”,
whereas we hear the Home Secretary saying, “We have an effective immigration system.” We wait to hear how the Minister reconciles the differences of opinion that appear to have opened up on the Government Front Bench this afternoon and how a consistent response will be achieved. We look forward to that with interest.
The debate has been wide ranging and we have heard some interesting contributions. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), who is not in his place, seemed to open up a new division between Scotland and the rest of the country. We may not have followed his line of argument, but I agree that we should not blame immigrants in a downturn. We need to treat that issue carefully. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made some important points about the all-party balanced migration group. It would be interesting to know whether, as was implied in their contributions, the Government share their views.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) rightly characterised the sensitivities aroused by the debate. It was interesting to hear that he welcomed the frank comments from the Minister, even if they have been withdrawn. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was right to point out that the debate has changed. She was also right to say that the Government have mishandled the immigration system. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) correctly emphasised the beneficial impact that immigrants can have. The question is the extent, nature and circumstances of that, which is the key part of the debate.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) highlighted the bigotry and hostility that may characterise the debate and was right to draw attention to the report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs and its recommendations. We wait to see whether the Minister responds more formally and properly to a number of the points raised in the report, in particular the recommendation that
“The Government should have an explicit and reasoned indicative target range for net immigration, and adjust its immigration policies in line with that broad objective.”
The hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) welcomed such a serious debate, and we are grateful that he welcomed our calling it. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) emphasised the extent to which immigration issues feature in his constituency postbag, as they do for so many of us. Finally, the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) drew attention to patterns of immigration in his constituency. On his point about the Gurkhas, we have made it clear that they should be entitled to settlement because of the contribution that they have made to the armed forces and to the interests of this country.
In the past 20 years, our population has grown by about 4 million. Over the next 20 years it is projected to grow by around 9 million—more than twice as fast. Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that our population of just under 61 million today will grow to nearly 63 million by 2011, 65 million by 2016 and more than 71 million by 2031. Part of the increase is accounted for by a change in Britain’s birth rate, which had been declining but is now increasing, and a rise in life expectancy. However, the most important source of population growth, as we discussed today and have seen in recent years, accounting for about 70 per cent., is inward migration from abroad. [Interruption.] We welcome the hon. Member for Eastleigh back to his place.
According to the Government, net migration is of the order of 200,000 a year. These increases are on a different scale from what we have seen in the recent past. The House of Lords Committee on Economic Affairs described the scale of net immigration as “unprecedented in our history”. Non-EU migration, excluding British citizens returning to live in this country, accounts for nearly 70 per cent. of all immigration. Of course overall non-EU migration includes asylum seekers, students and family members, as well as economic migrants. We can and should limit non-EU economic migration, balancing the needs of the economy with the need to promote community cohesion and moderate the impact on public services.
The figures hide more fundamental shifts in population. If a community experiences a sudden upsurge in its population, as we heard from many hon. Members in all parts of the House, the way in which it delivers and configures its police service, schools, health care and housing policies has to change. Crucially, because of the Government’s lax control and lack of information about population, that money does not follow the people. Local authorities, police forces and the health service find that their already tight budgets are stretched to breaking point by a sudden and seemingly unplanned and woefully unanticipated increase in population. The Local Government Association estimates that as many as 25 local authorities face funding shortfalls because Whitehall has underestimated the size of their populations.
Although the immigration Minister has floated some personal thinking on the issue, the Prime Minister and the Government cannot tell us whether they think that the population of this country is too low, too high or just about right. Perhaps the Minister will give us his thoughts on whether our population is growing too fast, too slowly or at about the right pace. Perhaps he will confirm whether he does think that there is a maximum limit beyond which the population of this country should not go. I remind him of his quote from last weekend:
“This Government isn’t going to allow the population to go up to 70 million. There has to be a balance between the number of people coming in and the number of people leaving.”
Does he stand by that quote, and is it supported by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary?
The Minister’s weekend comments on migration and population were framed—ill-advisedly, I think—in the context of employment and the downturn in the economy. I say ill-advisedly because a population strategy needs to be able to address all conditions in the economy. The issue does not suddenly become relevant because of changed market conditions; indeed, the Government’s previous failure to act is one of the things of which we have been most critical.
The approach should be consistent, dealing with the good times as well as the bad, and with the boom as well as the bust. Our domestic unemployment rate is shockingly high. Nearly 5 million adults of working age are on out-of-work benefits—and 4 million of them, according to the Government’s own figures, want to and could work if they had the skills, incentives and support. Perhaps most shockingly of all, 1.3 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are not in education, work or training—nearly 20 per cent. more than when the Government came to power in 1997. Despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric of “British jobs for British workers”, the reality is that 80 per cent. of new jobs created since 1997 have gone to migrant workers.
Britain has gained from the arrival of highly skilled workers in this country to meet skill shortages. However, although we need to accept and be honest about the fact that some immigration is good, it is not necessarily good in every circumstance. In particular, the advantages should not be overstated; that is why, as the House of Lords Committee on Economic Affairs stated in its report, GDP per person is the most appropriate measure to assess the benefits of migration. On that measure, the benefits are not so clear cut.
If the Minister is serious about putting proper limits on economic migration, I welcome that seismic shift in Government thinking. If he is prepared to accept past mistakes and policy failures, that will be a welcome step forward. If he is willing to acknowledge that this country is lagging behind other European countries in managing migration, that will be a breath of fresh air. However, after more than a decade of uncontrolled immigration, strained public services stretched by population shifts and a catastrophic failure in forecasts, I, for one, am not holding my breath.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members for kindly welcoming me to my new job; I am especially grateful to those on the Conservative Benches for their kind words. I pay full tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), my predecessor in this portfolio, who has, with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, put into place the architecture of an immigration policy that will introduce the biggest changes and shake-up to United Kingdom immigration since the arrival of the Windrush in the 1950s.
As the Home Secretary has already said, Britain’s migration policy needs to strike the correct balance, weighing the economic benefits with the impacts on communities and public services. This afternoon we have had a good and serious debate. The most important point to come out of it has also been a passionately held view of mine for years: that the worst thing to do is not to talk about the issue.
The second point to come out of the debate is that the House must show that it does not cast doubt on the motives of right hon. and hon. Members in making their policy changes. That is important, and I welcome the point made strongly by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). People understand that migration can bring benefits to our country, but they also rightly demand robust systems so that we can control who comes here and so that migrants abide by our laws and contribute to our society. My experience in my constituency is that the migrants themselves believe that most strongly; in that respect, there is a misunderstanding in this debate.
It is critical not only that we talk about immigration, and without questioning each other’s motives, but that this House is seen to be debating the issue. That is why I am pleased by the turnout this afternoon. I suspect that the debate will not receive as many column inches as short interviews over the weekend, but that is just the nature of the beast.
I welcome the Minister to his position; we have sparred a number of times in other contexts, and it is good to see him in his new role. May I take him back to what he has just said about the change in tone and atmosphere? That point is highly significant. Part of the Government’s problem in dealing with immigration has been that when in opposition, they imputed to the Conservative party completely wrong motives in respect of how we tried to deal with the problems. What has changed substantially is that the penny has dropped and that the Minister and his colleagues realise that they got it wrong. If they admitted that, it would help to clear the atmosphere and help us to go forward.
I know the hon. Gentleman well; his constituency covers Yarl’s Wood and he has a deep knowledge of immigration issues because of that, and previous experience. It will not help if I go into people’s motives from this Dispatch Box; I simply say that it is important that we do not question each other’s motives. Let me answer those critics who have questioned mine. Anyone who knows my constituency, as the hon. Gentleman does, will know that its ethnic minority population is greater than my majority; the motive assigned to me by some outside the House would hardly be a good electoral strategy.
In answering the important points that the House has made this afternoon, let me describe how we intend to put into place the substantial change in policy described by the Home Secretary earlier. First, we are strengthening the border. Fingerprint visas are an important part of that; anyone applying for a visa—currently, three quarters of the world’s population—now has their fingerprints checked against UK databases. So far, we have enrolled more than 2.8 million sets of fingerprints. I hope that hon. Members will welcome in a non-partisan way the fact that, as at August 2008, we had detected more than 3,600 cases of identity swaps. A number of Members have said this afternoon that the credibility of immigration policy depends on the belief and reality that the Government and the authorities have the figures. What has been announced is important, and is a move towards that.
Secondly, there is e-Borders. The pilot scheme for our electronic border system has already checked more than 50 million passenger movements since January 2005, and that has contributed to more than 2,100 arrests for crimes including murder, rape and assault. E-Borders will cover 95 per cent. of European economic area nationals, excluding UK nationals who are coming back, by the end of 2010.
Thirdly, we have ID cards. We will be introducing these for foreign nationals next month, to lock people to one identity so that those who are here legally can prove it, and to help to deal with those who are here illegally. By 2014-15, 90 per cent. of foreign nationals, excluding EU nationals, will have an identity card. I believe that there is a consensus for those measures, to help to build the credibility of the policy so that the public are reassured that people are here legitimately and for a purpose. Fourthly, we will have a new single border force with new powers for front-line staff. There is not time to go into the detail on the points made by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) about the police force and its structure, but the end goal is shared.
We come to the question of the points-based system and how we answer the question that has dominated the debate. The Government will roll out in the next few weeks and months the points-based system that is at the core of the change that I have described. That system is about getting only the right people in, and no more, but it is flexible and responsive to the needs of the United Kingdom. Those needs, to answer the point directly, are defined as economic needs, and we will take into account the social needs of our country. We already have the migration advisory committee, chaired very capably by the excellent Professor Metcalf, and we have the Migration Impacts Forum, which provides us with advice to balance those two factors.
The points-based system that we are introducing is a more powerful cap in policy and statistically than the crude cap proposed, as I understand it, by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and his team. I shall explain briefly why. The Conservative policy with a cap, or a limit—if we want to use that word—would cover only one in five migrants under the current system. It is not a population cap. The confusion between a population cap and migration limits has bedevilled this debate. It is the misunderstanding of that by some here, by others outside and, if I may say so, particularly by some upstairs, which is bedevilling the debate. The cap proposed by the Opposition excludes refugees and asylum seekers, European Union nationals and the 350,000 plus students who come to this country each year.
That is not what I am saying at all, and it is not the implication of what I am saying. There is a clear difference between the statement that it is right to look at the population trends of our country—the hon. Gentleman quoted my interview accurately, as did the journalist in question—and the population predictions. This is where the Tory party has the rug pulled from under it. Its population predictions do not take into account the implementation of the points-based system that this Government and this Home Secretary have put in place. Therefore, the Tories political strategy of saying to the country that the Government do not control immigration and, by implication, do not control population, is blown out of the water.
Might the Minister find time before he finishes to comment on what I thought was the most significant sentence uttered by the Home Secretary this afternoon? She said that the Government now believe that a five-year period of work should not automatically lead to citizenship just because one has been here for five years. That breaks the link between coming here to work and growing the population by immigration.
I would say that every utterance of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is significant, whatever her junior Ministers have been doing. The answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is yes. The answer to the question of my right hon. Friend, who is co-chair of the group on balanced migration, and the answer to the question that has been asked outside this place, is that the Government’s policy is that there should not be an automatic link between coming to this country to work and settlement at the end of that period. That is an important point.
On a connected point, I hope that the Minister can tackle this loophole. I get complaints from some of my constituents, as I am sure he does, about a classic situation, involving a minority. A UK-born woman marries a man from Pakistan. He comes here for two years and a day, gets indefinite leave to remain, divorces her, goes back to Pakistan and brings in another wife. We do not say to him, “You’ve divorced your UK-born wife. Even though you’ve been here more than two years, get out of here and stay out.” We ought to.
The example that my hon. Friend gave is something with which I am very familiar in my constituency as, I am sure, are my right hon. and hon. Friends and others on the Opposition Benches. The Government’s policy is that a spouse has the right to live with a UK-national spouse. My hon. Friend and I have debated that point before, and we will no doubt debate it in future.
Let me compare the cap proposed by the Opposition and the implication of the points-based system that we are introducing. The fact is that the cap proposed by the Conservatives would capture only one in five migrants. The points-based system, without a specific numerical objective, which I believe is impractical and misleading, gives us the necessary controls to cover close to three in five of those in the inflow of non-British migrants. That is how we square the circle put to us this weekend and today.
There will be no automatic right. The Minister told the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) that he wants to preserve the rights of foreign spouses of British nationals, even if they have been here for five years. So when he says there is no automatic right, he means that there is no automatic right unless someone is married. That is the first exception, and there will be others as well. He should stop deceiving his right hon. Friend.
The hon. Gentleman is deliberately sowing confusion between the work-based element and the spouse-based element. I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) is suggesting that a UK national should not, under the conditions we are putting in place, be allowed to bring his spouse into the country. [Interruption.] I do not think that he is saying that.
Along with the proposals for earned citizenship, it is crucial that this country helps immigrants to help themselves to integrate into our society. That is what I, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Government believe has not always been the case in the past. It is crucial that we bring that help to bear.
The change in the policy has been introduced primarily through the points-based system. There will be tougher border controls. We will have credibility in being able to count people out and count people in, which everyone believes is necessary, and we will have additional policies on earned citizenship. We see the real reason why the Conservative party has been excited this weekend. It has had the rug pulled from under it because we have exposed the fact that its policy is not what it claims to be. Indeed, on closer scrutiny, it is a weaker policy on controlled migration than the Government’s.
This Government have put in place the most significant changes in immigration policy since the 1950s. We are doing so with a consensus in the country. What the Conservatives cannot stand is the idea that we, in an egalitarian way, have stolen their clothes.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):—
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House welcomes the actions of the Government in undertaking the biggest shake-up of the immigration system in decades; supports the introduction of the points based system for migration, which will ensure that only those with skills the UK needs can come to work or study; endorses the proposals set out in the Earned Citizenship Green Paper for newcomers to speak English, obey the law and pay their way; looks forward to the issuing of the first identity cards for foreign nationals next month, which will enable those who are here legally to prove it, helping to reduce identity abuse and prevent those here illegally from benefiting from the privileges of life in the UK; is committed to taking tough action against employers who exploit illegal workers knowingly; supports the removal of record numbers of foreign national prisoners; notes the Government’s doubling of the UK Border Agency’s enforcement budget within three years from 2006; pays tribute to the work of the single UK Border Agency; and welcomes the introduction of the electronic border system that will check every visitor against immigration and security watchlists and count them in and out of the UK.