House of Commons
Tuesday 21 October 2008
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Following representations that I have received on behalf of businesses in ports, I am in correspondence with the Minister for Local Government, and our officials at the Department for Transport have been discussing the matter with officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government.
I am not critical of the hon. Gentleman at all. As Minister with responsibility for shipping, I am grateful for any interest in the subject, as I know that shipping feels undervalued and that it is not give the credit that it is due. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government are aware of the concerns of businesses within ports about the backdating of business rates, and are we are looking at the position. Other right hon. and hon. Members have also made representations.
Can my hon. Friend give the House an assurance that he is dealing with this matter as a matter of urgency? Does he accept that levying retrospective business rates in ports such as Liverpool and Hull has an effect on the economic regeneration that is so evident in our ports?
As my hon. Friend, who is the Chairman of the Transport Committee, knows, during a debate on regional matters by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government she was given an assurance that the Government are aware of the concerns about backdating raised by business within our ports, and we are looking at the situation. Indeed, I had a telephone conversation with the Minister for Local Government earlier today; we are looking into this as a matter of urgency.
In the course of his discussions with the Minister for Local Government, will the Minister seek to resolve a paradox? The Financial Secretary to the Treasury indicated to me in a written answer that retrospective taxation should be imposed only
“where the Government consider that it is necessary to protect revenue and…is fair, proportionate and in the public interest”.—[Official Report, 9 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 802W.]
How can that be reconciled with another written answer from the Financial Secretary saying that no impact assessment was made of this retrospective decision—or, indeed, with the written answer from the Minister for Local Government saying that no assessment has been made of the amount of revenue that might be raised, and, I assume, protected?
I am at a slight disadvantage in not having to hand the three replies that the hon. Gentleman refers to. I can say that assessments have been made of the financial impact on ports and the businesses within them in respect of the increase in revenue afforded as a result of the examination of business rates within ports by the Valuation Office Agency. As I said in response both to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), the Chair of the Transport Committee, the Government are looking into these matters and we will respond as soon as we can.
My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that I am the Member of Parliament representing the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company—a fantastically thriving port. It had been decimated by the Tories, so in 1997 unemployment was very high. I accept what the Minister has said about his intervention in this very important matter, but will he come to visit our port, and some of the very successful companies that are working there, in order to hear about their prospects for the future under this Government?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s generous offer of a visit to the city of Liverpool and the port in her constituency. I am visiting ports as a matter of routine, and I will certainly look to see how quickly I can fit this particular visit into the schedule, and write to my hon. Friend about it.
The Minister knows of the desperate plight faced by those all those who serve the shipping industry, with the collapse in shipping rates. Will he confirm not only that there was no impact assessment of any sort, but that while the ports that stand to do well out of this were all consulted, there was no consultation of any kind with any of the businesses that will be adversely affected?
As I have explained over the last few minutes, this is very much a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government, to which the Valuation Office Agency is responsible and reports in respect of its activities. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman once again that assessments have been carried out. I have to apologise to the House for not being in a position to confirm whether a full impact assessment was made, but I will ask my DCLG colleagues whether that was the case, and I will certainly let the hon. Gentleman know the position as a matter of urgency.
New London Airport
The Government consulted on an option for a new airport in north Kent in preparing the 2003 “Future of Air Transport” White Paper. As the White Paper makes clear, that option and other proposals for a new airport in the Thames estuary were rejected in favour of supporting development at existing airports in the south-east of England. That remains the Government’s position.
Has the Secretary of State considered the effects of airport expansion, or of the building of new airports, on wildlife, birds and the wider environment? What guarantees can he give that the country’s rich biodiversity will be protected? Will he undertake to consult the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds before conducting further airport expansion in our country?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, because one of the main reasons why the Mayor of London’s proposals are not practical is that building an estuarial airport in places of ecological sensitivity, which have large seabird populations, is not practical, because of both the impact on the environment and the risk of bird strike—a phenomenon not unknown to those who operate aircraft. Perhaps surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, and I trust that he will communicate his views firmly to the Mayor of London.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his recent appointment as Transport Secretary, and I look forward to him dealing effectively but resolutely with all issues, particularly the need to secure more aviation capacity in the south-east. Does he agree that the problem is not just the local environmental impact of a potential new airport in the Thames estuary, but the lack of a substantial work force locally? Is it not fantasy politics to suggest that a Thames estuary airport could ever obviate the need for a third runway at Heathrow?
Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent work completed by my right hon. Friend during her service in the Department for Transport. She was well respected within the Department and across the transport industry. I am grateful for her comments, not least because she displays a knowledge and understanding of the issues, which I hope in time to acquire, and which certainly far outstrips the rather feeble views set out so far by Opposition Front Benchers on such questions. Clearly they lack any consistent support from their Back Benchers, as we have seen recently. It is disappointing that they have not paid attention to the voice of British business on a question as vital as the future of the United Kingdom’s major airport. I hope that there is some principled reason for their position, but I suspect that there may not be.
The Secretary of State may be a little complacent in his duties if he says that it would be perfectly proper to consult the RSPB about an estuarial airport. The United Kingdom is likely to need a 24-hour airport in the future, and historically, demand for air travel has grown constantly. If the Government did not keep the options under review they would not be doing their duty, and they should not dismiss the suggestions of the Mayor of London so lightly.
In preparation for the 2003 White Paper, some 400 different possible sites were examined. Other than the existing airports, one was examined in greater detail, and even that was rejected on grounds of feasibility, cost and practicality. It cannot therefore be said that the Government have not looked in detail at the options. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to say that it is always necessary to keep such issues under review. Given that a major undertaking involving the consideration of 400 possible sites was carried out very recently, I hope that he accepts—fair man that he is—that there is not much point in reviewing the whole issue again so soon.
If they have not considered it, they have not considered the matter carefully. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to consider the 100,000 jobs provided by Heathrow in the surrounding area, the impact on British business, and the impact on overseas investment: 70 per cent. of companies that invest for the first time in the United Kingdom do so in places less than an hour from Heathrow. All those are major considerations. If the Opposition’s position rests somehow on an environmental case, they need to face up to the fact that the great majority of people travelling into Heathrow, who catch long-distance flights, would transfer their journeys to continental airports such as Schiphol, Paris and Frankfurt. There would be no saving of carbon, but instead—[Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers are laughing, but this is not a laughing matter as far as British jobs are concerned. British jobs would be exported to the continent, which is a remarkable result for a party that is supposed to be anti-European.
Works to convert one platform of Waterloo International for domestic use will be completed by December 2008. The Department continues to work with South West Trains with a view to some existing services operating into and out of platform 20 from next year.
I thank the Minister and his predecessor for their support for this project, but the rail operators are saying that they cannot improve services unless they have more rolling stock. Will the Government give priority to that additional investment, under their accelerated programme for railway investment?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are, in a sense, two stages—a short-term and a medium-term solution—in relation to, in this instance, Waterloo station. In the short term, we need to establish a service by next year through South West Trains. The longer-term solution will involve HLOS—the high-level output specification—and the reconfiguration of all routes into Waterloo, with longer trains to meet capacity requirements. That is part of the £10 billion package in which the Government are investing until 2014.
The Minister may be aware that Waterloo International, designed by that great British architect Nick Grimshaw, is one of the finest steel and glass constructions—if not the world’s best—since the Crystal Palace was built for the great exhibition in 1851. Alas, at present we can only see it from the top of the London Eye. As the Minister contemplates what will happen to Waterloo International, will he arrange for one or two buildings around it to be demolished, so that we can actually see one of the finest bits of glass and steel architecture built in recent years?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. I am currently dealing with issues related to transport, but he is right to point out that redeveloping and proceeding with plans in an optimal way invariably involves many other players. We will certainly take his comments on board, and I am sure that the relevant authorities will imagine seeing Waterloo in the same splendid way as we now see the Barlow shed at St Pancras.
As well as finding out whether Waterloo International might be used for London suburban rail services, will the Minister find out whether it might be used for services from further afield—from Hampshire and the south-west, where there is enormous pressure on the train service?
The right hon. Gentleman has raised a wider issue, relating to capacity and ways of making the best possible use of our existing facilities and infrastructure. The current HLOS plan is to build on capacity and the available options through that £10 billion package. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) has asked Network Rail formally to consider a number of options for the period beyond 2014, and we await further work which will undoubtedly start to feed ideas into the work stream in 2009.
I welcome the Minister to his new role, and hope that he is as successful in it as his predecessor.
Every morning commuters from all over south-west London, and indeed from further afield, are reminded that they travel on one of the most overcrowded parts of our railway network, yet they continue to see four platforms not being used. The Government knew in 2004 that Eurostar services would go to St Pancras, yet only one platform will be in operation before 2014, as the Minister has just confirmed. According to estimates provided by industry, it would cost only £10 million to bring the other four platforms into use, and it is costing half a million pounds to mothball them. Is this any way to treat commuters?
One thing of which I am certain is that we must invest constructively in infrastructure fit for the 21st century. I am well aware of the vast increase in passenger journeys over the last ten years, causing substantial demand on our safe, secure and relatively efficient network. That is important. Reliability has improved tremendously and South West Trains’ latest figures show that its reliability is up to 92.5 per cent from August to September. That is what people want: reliable services at a reasonable cost.
On investing, there will be many demands on the £10 billion to which I have referred to increase capacity. I am sure that other hon. Members from all regions have demands in their neck of the woods. We are dealing with the short-term requirements to 2009; the longer term will involve changing capacity at Waterloo and other stations.
Plans for substantial highway improvements on the A46 between Newark and Widmerpool are well developed and being reviewed by the east midlands region in its assessment of funding priorities. The Department for Transport expects to receive the region’s advice early in 2009.
Let me welcome my hon. Friend to his new position, and immediately ask for his help in resolving a problem that applies to the whole of the east midlands. He recognises the problem; it is simply one of funding. The road scheme costs £370 million, and it is simply unreasonable to ask the regional pot to fund it. It is like keeping a whale in a bucket. Will he look again at this matter?
I thank my hon. Friend for his words of welcome. I am well aware that this has been a long saga. He will be well aware that the costs for the scheme have increased tremendously. He mentions £370 million, but he will find that the figure is between £370 million and £500 million, at some £437 million. We are looking at the possibilities. The Highways Agency is working closely with the region and the local authorities in the east midlands to see whether there is a possibility of phasing, and we are expecting that work to be completed shortly.
May I too welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities, and also ask for his help? Is he aware that the decision of one of his recent predecessors to make this a regional rather than a national priority has had the inevitable effect of causing indefinite delay to an important scheme on a dangerous road that is very important to the regional economy? If the Government are now serious in their stated intention of giving greater priority to capital expenditure in the course of reviving the economy, surely this is an obvious scheme to consider. It has already gone through years of preparation, has practically completed the planning process, and is ready to be started in a comparatively short time—in the next year or two, if the Government were to make the funds available.
I hear exactly what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying and I thank him for welcoming me to my post. There are many schemes that right hon. and hon. Members would describe as absolutely critical, for a whole host of very sound reasons. We took the decision, rightly, to bring together the decision-making processes on roads, economic development and housing at regional level so that there could be a better understanding and meshing of those requirements at regional level, where, as I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept, the importance of schemes is best known. In terms of regional priorities and whether this scheme can proceed, let me add that the Highways Agency is working closely with the east midlands region to see what phasing of this scheme there could be, to make the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s dream—and the dream of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)—come true.
May I welcome the Minister to his post—and may I expose my dream to him as well? No wonder prices for this scheme are increasing disproportionately, because we have been talking about it since 1958, and nothing has been done. The fact remains that Newark is being strangled economically by this one piece of road that has not been dualled. We have good pieces of road running up to Lincoln and in the other direction down to Leicester. Unless something is done about this quickly and effectively, which it can be, Newark will continue not to fulfil its full economic promise. May I invite the Minister and/or the Secretary of State to come and visit, and to see exactly what are the effects on my constituency of this dangerous road, which is long overdue for improvement?
I am interested in the fact that this road scheme has been waiting since 1958—and I wonder why progress was not made under other Administrations. [Interruption.] Yes, the former Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), may have had something to do with that. The safety issues are rightly recognised locally, by the region, by the Highways Agency and by us, but there must be an order of priority for schemes. It is necessary for that to be built into the whole programme for the allocation of funding, which over this period is tremendously higher both regionally and in terms of the strategic network of roads. We always take into account invitations to visit, although whether there can be a visit soon is another matter.
There has been regular contact between the Department for Transport and DBERR on this issue, going back many months. The last discussion at official level was on 16 October.
I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my pride that Labour’s minimum wage has made this a fairer country and taken millions of people out of poverty—but when are Ministers going to take action to close the loophole that allows foreign seafarers sailing between British ports to be paid as little as one third of the national minimum wage—sometimes less than £2 an hour? Will he meet me and my colleagues, and DBERR representatives, prior to our discussions of the Employment Bill, so that we can stop this exploitation of working people?
I well remember the introduction of the national minimum wage; I remember staying up all night to fight the Conservatives tooth and nail, while they did everything they could to prevent it from being introduced. The application of the national minimum wage to seafarers is a complex issue, as my hon. Friend knows, and it is the subject of ongoing discussions within Government. Three Departments have an interest: DBERR as the owners of national minimum wage legislation; the Department for Transport because we have general responsibility for seafarers’ employment rights; and the Foreign Office because of the implications for international law. Ships are generally governed by the law of their flag state even when on what is known as innocent passage through the territorial waters of another state. Any changes to national minimum wage legislation would need to be consistent with international law. I know my hon. Friend knows that, and that he also knows that we are trying to address this question.
UK seafarers can be denied the national minimum wage by foreign flagged vessels even when they work exclusively out of UK ports—and, as we have just heard, foreign seafarers face racial discrimination on UK ships. Why do we continue to allow this kind of thing to happen in UK territorial waters, when we would never allow it on UK territorial land?
The national minimum wage currently applies to those who are working, or who ordinarily work, in the UK under their contract. For seafarers, “in the UK” means in internal waters—in other words, the water and waterways to the landward side of the baseline. It applies to those working on UK-registered ships, unless the employment is wholly outside the UK or the worker is not ordinarily resident in the UK. It applies to offshore workers—for instance, on oil rigs in territorial waters—but excludes workers on ships in the course of navigation or engaged in dredging or fishing. The maritime unions are campaigning to get the extension to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) referred, and we are doing what we can to address the issue.
Midland Main Line
Network Rail has proposed line speed enhancements on the midland main line as part of the plan to deliver the capacity improvements sought by the Government in the July 2007 rail White Paper. The independent Office of Rail Regulation has indicated that it is minded to agree to that project. A final determination is expected from the ORR at the end of the month.
When the next timetable change happens, half the trains north from Kettering will be lost, and all the fast trains between Kettering and the capital will disappear, because of capacity constraints on the midland main line, inadequate line speeds and the Department’s insistence that services between Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby and the capital be sped up. Can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents in Kettering that the line speed upgrades that he has just promised will ensure that those services are reinstated to Kettering as soon as possible?
I have admired the consistency with which the hon. Gentleman raises issues of behalf of Kettering and his constituents, but I thought that he was less than generous in his observations about improvements on the midland main line, not least those that affect Kettering. Not only will significant investment improve line speeds, but a new timetable that comes into force in December is likely to provide two trains an hour from Kettering to London, one of which will actually start in Kettering. As he will be aware, there are times when those of us who catch the train from further up the line at Derby, Nottingham and Leicester fill it before his constituents have the opportunity to get on. Starting a train at Kettering and having an hourly service direct from Kettering to London will mean that his constituents are well served. I hope that when he goes from this place and talks about the remarkable improvements in the service from Kettering, he will give them a bit more praise than he has so far.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s positive response to the question, and I know that he knows the line very well. Does he agree that the most significant improvements to it can be achieved only as a result of electrification? Does he share his predecessor’s commitment to a study of electrification, and does he recognise that, uniquely among main lines, this one has a very positive cost benefit attached to it?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He will be aware that I take a close, indeed personal, interest in the midland main line, as a regular user of it. I certainly share my predecessor’s enthusiasm for electrification, and I assure my hon. Friend that the Department will examine it very closely.
I welcome the new ministerial team to their posts. Typical—you wait months for a new Transport Minister, then three come along at the same time.
The Secretary of State’s predecessors promised extra carriages. How many have been ordered for the midland main line?
I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. I remember her as an enthusiastic Member of the European Parliament, where she had a deserved reputation for a practical and pragmatic approach to issues. I am sorry that on her return from Brussels to Notting Hill she seems to have fallen in with a bad crowd. Nevertheless, I look forward to answering her questions, not least on the midland main line. I am delighted that she is so enthusiastic about it that she has chosen this matter to discuss with me. I use the line on a very regular basis and I can assure her, as I have assured Labour Members, that close attention will be paid to future investment in the midland main line.
I think that the answer that the Secretary of State is groping for is actually “zero”. The Government’s response to congestion on the midland main line and the rest of the network is wholly inadequate and painfully slow. He cannot even give a straight answer about the new carriages that they have promised time and again. Will he deliver all 1,300, and will they be in addition to the new Thameslink carriages? If he really wants to tackle congestion on the rail network, will he work with me on a cross-party basis to take forward plans for high-speed rail for this country?
Again, I am sorry to hear such a grudging view of the investment in the railways that the Government are planning. We have proposed to spend £15 billion on improving our rail network, of which £10 billion will be devoted to reducing congestion. That is an enormous commitment. I am sorry that the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer is not in his place, because he will know that no previous Conservative Transport Secretary could ever have made that commitment. I am proud that my predecessors were able to secure such support from the Treasury to allow that investment to go ahead.
May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that with the £15 billion of investment, to try to increase rail line speeds and reduce train congestion, we should nationalise the railways, just as we are nationalising the banks, by not renewing the franchises as they fall due? Many of those franchises, just like the banks, are bankrupt and would not be operating except for huge Government subsidy. Let us move the railways back into state ownership. What are his views on that?
I think that I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question—I may have to reflect upon it. I am sorry that he takes that view of the contributions that have been made by train operating companies, not least because there has been a remarkable change in the usage patterns on the line that we have just been debating, the midland main line. Whereas trains used to stop only at Derby, Nottingham and Leicester on their way south, passing all the stations in between, there is now an hourly service from stations such as Kettering right down the line, and that has made a huge change to the usage. A further change has been the way in which off-peak services have attracted rail users. When I travelled down from Derby to London on Saturday, the first class compartments were full. In the days of the nationalised railways, those compartments would, sadly, have been completely empty on Saturdays. I hope that he gives some credit to the innovation that the private sector has brought. The position of Network Rail has clearly changed in recent times, and we ensure that Network Rail provides a safe and reliable system for users of the rail network. Thus, on balance, I shall probably resist his invitation.
I formally welcome the Secretary of State to his post on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, merely observing that the average tenure of office of a Secretary of State for Transport since 1945 is considerably less than 18 months—that is, of course, some way short of the next general election.
On the midland main line, is not one of the causes of the capacity constraints and the failure to electrify the cuts that have been made to the Department for Transport’s budget? Rather than the investment that the Secretary of State mentions, the reality is that the rail budget has reduced by 17 per cent. this year and is now lower than in 2003-04, whereas the road budget has doubled. Given that, and given the Secretary of State’s unhelpful response to the Select Committee on Transport on the subject of fares and his support for aviation, is it not clear that the new Transport Secretary is no friend of either the railways or the environment?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his qualified welcome. He and I had many dealings in my time at the Ministry of Defence, and I always admired his ability to dig himself into a trench and launch a constant barrage at what he perceived to be the enemy; sadly, he sometimes did so after the war had finished. Nevertheless, I look forward to debating these issues with him. As a start, he might perhaps like to examine the remarkable increases in investment in the railways and the remarkable improvement in passenger journeys on our trains. I assure him that while I am Secretary of State for Transport—however long that might be—there will be no lack of investment in or commitment to our rail network.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to set out to the House the new ministerial responsibilities in the Department for Transport. I shall, of course, maintain an overview of all transport policy. My noble Friend Lord Adonis will take responsibility for our national road and rail networks, the environment and climate change. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), will cover our international aviation and maritime networks, road safety and transport security. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), will take responsibility for all our local transport networks, including responsibility for buses, taxis, cycling, light rail, walking and general accessibility policy. That role is known otherwise in the Department as the Minister for Adjournment debates.
May I repeat a suggestion that I have made to every single one of the Secretary of State’s predecessors whom I have encountered, but without success? Why not set up in his Department a dedicated unit of civil servants to work with people outside to reopen disused and dismantled railway lines? That is crying out to be done. I have a railway in my constituency between Skipton and Colne, and I am sure that it would benefit if he had the best minds in his Department working on this issue to re-establish a railway that was closed in 1975.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s consistency on this question. I am sure that, with his commitment to local government and democracy, he will not mind me saying that if there is a strong local case for reopening railway lines, the case can be made and brought to the Department, where it will be looked at favourably. I am sure that he would not want me to interfere in these matters from the lofty heights of central London, as it would be better if he could persuade the local authorities along the line in question to make the case for reopening the line and to get on with it.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. Will he now focus his mind on what is scheduled to happen on Monday next week, when we are due to debate the remaining stages of the Local Transport Bill? Is he aware that already 68 pages of new clauses and amendments have been tabled, many of them by the Government? There is still time for more to be added. On reflection, does he agree that one day’s debate is woefully inadequate, and will he have a word with the Labour Chief Whip to point out that this situation verges on contempt of Parliament and that we need two days?
I am grateful for that welcome. Having served as Chief Whip and as Leader of the House, I am reluctant to interfere in the wise decisions made by the business managers. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham, is looking hard at the amendments and trying to find a sensible way to deal with all of them. It is a matter for the business managers to allocate time, and I am confident that there will be sufficient time for a full and proper debate of the remaining stages of the Bill.
My hon. Friend was a persistent questioner at Defence questions and I am delighted to see him in his usual place for Transport questions. On the particular issue that he raises, I may need a little more notice to answer his question in detail, but I assure him that he will get a full and complete answer.
I fully agree with the praise heaped on the RNLI by the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure does the whole House. I was lucky enough to visit its headquarters in Poole only a few months ago, and I saw for myself the excellent facilities and the plans to improve them even further. I am sure that he knows that the spectrum issue is the subject of consultation that is about to close. I can assure him that the issues that he raises have been brought to the attention of the appropriate authority. Issues remain to be resolved, but I can assure him that we are involved, and as a result of this exchange, his concerns will be fed back to the Department involved.
The Minister will be aware of the concern among offshore workers following recent guidance from the Treasury on the seafarers’ earnings deduction. Will he confirm that he has spoken with the Treasury about that and assure offshore workers that they will not be adversely affected by the guidance?
The Department has had informal discussions with Nautilus UK and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs following the special commissioner’s decision in the Pride of South America case. Although there have not been any discussions with the Treasury, I understand that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is aware of the concerns raised by the decision. HMRC will work closely with stakeholders on the interpretation of the commissioner’s decision to ensure that it is implemented in a fair and practical way.
The A12 has been referred to by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members before. As he knows, the matter has been under consideration for some time. In respect of road accidents and collisions, we are about to launch the consultation early next year on our post-2010 strategy. We are looking at the EuroRAP—European road assessment programme—assessment system for roads, whereby accident rates are fed into that which ought to be done to reduce casualties and instances of death and serious injury. The A12 may well be prioritised above its station, given the description that the hon. Gentleman has just provided, but it will form part of a strategy for 2010 onwards.
The Department is on record as saying that we will issue relatively soon our consultation on drink-drive limits as well as on compliance and enforcement on a range of other issues, such as driving with drugs, careless driving, speeding and so on. That consultation will come out shortly. We have said so far—we have been misreported in the press—that we will not recommend a reduction of the limit to 50 mg, in line with other European countries. We have said that it might not and probably will not be one of our recommendations, but having a drink-drive consultation obviously opens up the question. There are strong feelings on the issue, so we fully expect that a number of organisations will argue for such a change. The evidence will be tested against those submissions and we will look at the conclusions in due course. Although some other European countries have a 50 mg limit, they do not have the same penalties as us for drink driving. Some have a points penalty and a fine, and their record on road safety is not as good as the UK’s. The issue is complex and emotive, and I am sure that it will be fully examined as a result of the consultation.
Of course, the office is totally independent, and its remit is independent of the Department for Transport. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising yet another illustration of where the significant investment that the Government are making available to the network might produce benefits by reducing congestion and improving journey times. I hope that those on his Front Bench can emulate the commitment to railways that the Government have made.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the DSA keeps under close scrutiny the new arrangements that will be introduced in due course for the new multi-purpose test centres and the new motorcycle test. He will know about the criteria that have been laid down, and we are aware that they do not fit in certain parts of the country. We will look very closely at the arrangements that will be in place for his and other constituencies. We have deferred the introduction of the new test for six months because of the concerns expressed by the motorcycle training sector. That shows that we are listening, as we will continue to listen, to representations from hon. Members.
Women and Equality
The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—
We are making good progress in preparing the Bill. It is a significant challenge to simplify all the existing legislation and to strengthen protection in the ways that we are proposing. I therefore cannot give a precise answer as to the timing of the Bill’s introduction, but the House can rest assured that we are getting on with it and that the Bill will be introduced when it is ready.
I am grateful for that response, and wish the Parliamentary Secretary no insult when I say that I hope that the Minister for Women and Equality will be back with us shortly and in time for business questions on Thursday. I am interested in the Parliamentary Secretary’s answer, as the director general of the Government Equalities Office suggested in an interview in Whitehall and Westminster World on 27 August that the Bill would be introduced to the House at the end of February or in early March. I received a written answer from the Parliamentary Secretary’s predecessor on 6 October that simply committed to it happening sometime during this Parliament. Perhaps she cannot give us an exact answer, but will she give us some idea as to whether the director general’s suggestion about February or March is accurate, or whether the Bill will be introduced later? That would be very helpful to all the organisations that wish to lobby us about the contents of the Bill.
When preparing legislation, I am a great one for pressing for it to be brought forward as soon as possible, but I am also keen to make sure that it is in a fit state to be dealt with properly by this House. I think that that is desirable, but I have been doing this particular job for only a week and a half and I do not wish to commit myself to a precise date. [Interruption.] No, the Bill is in a fit state, but I and my officials will be pressing to make sure that it is introduced in the best possible state and as soon as possible.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the measures in the Equality Bill should apply in good times and in bad, and that progressive policies that address inequality, such as the right to request flexible working, should not be the first to go when there is a downturn in the economy?
I agree completely with my hon. Friend. I also agree with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who said yesterday that we will carry on supporting flexible working, because a whole load of people need it. That is absolutely true, and it is important that fairness is at the forefront of our employment practices at times of economic downturn as well in the good times. We intend to make sure that it remains that way.
The timetable for the Equality Bill has slipped already, and we now hear that the Government are seriously considering scrapping their commitment to the right to an extension of flexible working and paid maternity leave. Given that, and the importance that the Minister for Women and Equality places on the Bill, will the Parliamentary Secretary give a firm commitment that the Bill will be on the statute books before the next general election?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is overreacting to coverage in the newspapers that has gone a bit too far. His own party has also had coverage in the newspapers. On the Sunday before last, The Observer suggested that the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was saying that flexibility should be scrapped immediately and that there should be less regulation of businesses, by which he meant less employment protection. There are different signals coming out of the hon. Gentleman’s party. At the same time, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is proposing a private Member’s Bill—
In reviewing the equality legislation, will my hon. Friend take full account of last week’s debate on the report on women and work by the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, including its recommendations on flexible working, introducing clarification on the use of public procurement to promote such policies, and ensuring that businesses meet their requirements to promote equality?
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that commitment. As she is aware, public procurement is worth up to £160 billion of business in any particular year. It is sensible that the Government’s commitment to closing the gender pay gap and promoting equality should make use of that purchasing power. When the new Bill gets on to the statute book, which will be as soon as possible, it will ensure that the purchasing power of public procurement can be used to promote these desirable objectives.
Public Service Employment
Does the Minister agree that it is an absolute disgrace for the Black Police Association actively to discourage black people and those with Asian backgrounds from joining the Metropolitan police service? What action would the Government take against an organisation that said that only white people should join a public service?
The hon. Gentleman has every right to that opinion, but the Black Police Association is a self-organised group that is entitled to say what it wishes about the experience of black people in the police, on which it has a perspective. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has strongly supported the Home Secretary’s decision to set up a nationwide inquiry into the recruitment and promotion prospects of ethnic minority people in the police service. It is right that the Equality and Human Rights Commission should have an interest in the fact that ethnic minority employment is 15 per cent. below the national average. The extent to which that is caused by discrimination is a matter for the commission, but the individual views of people in a self-organised group are not.
The Government have a strong record on supporting working families, including those looking to adopt children. I am pleased to say that since April 2003 couples and individuals who are adopting children have had the right to take up to 52 weeks’ adoption leave provided that they give their employers sufficient notice. This is equivalent to the rights to maternity leave.
I welcome the Minister to her place. I accept her answer, but is she aware that couples who are adopting are given approximately only 50 per cent. of the paid leave available for couples who have their own children? I have encountered two cases in which that has happened. Does she agree that given that those children often need more support, their adoptive parents should be able to have the same amount of maternity or paternity leave as is given to other couples? That would be a big help.
The hon. Gentleman will have to talk to me outside about individual cases, which I am happy to take up on his behalf. Women who have given birth are required by law to take time off—a minimum of two weeks if they work in an office or four weeks if they work in a factory. Maternity pay for the first six weeks after a mother has given birth is now 90 per cent. of her pay. He may be referring to the fact that that is different for those who are adopting. If I have got that wrong, I am happy to talk to him about the precise circumstances of his constituents and try to provide him with an answer. He will recall that until April 2003, those adopting children had no right to any leave or pay for that purpose. I hope that he therefore accepts that this is an advance.
I welcome the Minister to her place. Given the change in the law, what monitoring are the Government doing to ensure that same-sex couples are not excluded from adoption, particularly by religious agencies and particularly in light of recent reports that the Catholic Children’s Society (Westminster) is openly trying to dodge that new law?
The law relating to that issue applies equally to all adoption agencies. There was a 20-month transitional period, as the hon. Lady may recall, for the Catholic adoption agencies, which had particular concerns, to adjust their policies and procedures to comply with the law. That is due to end on 31 December 2008. It would be unacceptable to have an exception in the law for any agencies that were offering publicly funded services in respect of regulations designed to prevent discrimination. Statistics are collected about adoptions, and I can assure my hon. Friend that it will be possible to use them to check whether any discrimination is taking place.
The Government have a proud record of tackling inequality. By introducing the national minimum wage, extending flexible working and expanding access to child care, we are seeking to level the playing field. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality set up the national equality panel to help us do more. Its objective is to close the gaps in our current understanding of inequality and to examine, for instance, why even today, by the age of six, talented children from poor families are overtaken by less talented children from richer families.
I accept that, as my hon. Friend says, the Government have a good record on the entire equalities agenda, but there is still much to do, particularly in relation to the gender pay gap and, as she said, the life chances of children brought up in poverty. Will she confirm that it is the Government’s intention to carry on making sure that the equalities agenda is at the top of their agenda, especially as in times of economic downtown, that may be one of the areas to which less attention is paid?
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is still more to be done and we intend to do it, not only through the provisions that will be enacted in the Equality Bill when it is taken through the House, but by increasing the transparency of what goes on so that we can better understand the causes of inequality. She knows that across Government we have a number of public service agreement targets, which are designed to make sure that we reduce health inequalities, close educational attainment gaps between those who are deprived and those who are less deprived, narrow the gap in employment for those who are disabled, lone parents or members of ethnic minorities, and increase equality generally. We are setting ourselves tough targets to ensure that we do that, and I can assure her and the House that we will continue to make progress.
As a former Minister for disabled people, my hon. Friend is aware that traditionally there have been people across Government in various Departments who have championed different equalities issues. Now, in her present role in the Ministry of Justice, she is expected also to take responsibility for equalities. Is she able to call on champions in every Department to ensure that all these issues are mainstreamed in every Department?
I certainly hope to be able to do that. Going into my eighth year as a Minister, I am starting to feel as though I have been in every Department and had to deal with these issues. I am able to call upon that experience. The public service agreements and targets across Government, which are cross-cutting and which I mentioned in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), indicate that the whole Government are committed to the equalities agenda and that we are increasingly mainstreaming our efforts in that regard.
The interdepartmental ministerial group on human trafficking, of which I am a member, regularly discusses that subject. This year, the Government invested a further £1.3 million in the POPPY project to support these vulnerable victims, taking the total to £5.8 million since 2003. That provides 35 supported accommodation places. The Government will expand the support services for the victims next year as part of our commitment to implement the Council of Europe convention against trafficking in human beings.
I agree that we need to do more. In fact, we are now developing a national referral mechanism that will enable the POPPY project or similar accommodation projects to take referrals from other areas to ensure that we develop more capacity for helping the vulnerable victims of a horrific offence.
Is not the imperative now to expand the model created by the POPPY project across the country? We do not want young women who have been sexually exploited coming to just one area—basically, south London—and putting pressure on housing, although we hope that they are granted leave to remain. As we consider rolling out the model, is it not important that joined-up agencies work together for those women, who have often been the victims of violent and sexual crime?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the POPPY project takes referrals from areas other than just London. Via the interdepartmental ministerial group on human trafficking, I am liaising with my ministerial colleagues on funding to try to make sure that we can expand our capacity to deal with the victims of those horrific offences and ensure that the women get proper support once we have managed to get them out of the exploitation into which they have been trafficked.
Driving Instructors Convicted of Sexual Offences (Suspension)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the immediate suspension from the Register of Approved Driving Instructors of driving instructors convicted of sexual offences; and for connected purposes.
I am standing here today because of a brave young woman called Lesley Anne. Learning to drive can be a stressful experience; people have to learn all the signs and how to do three-point turns and hill starts. They should not also be thinking that their driving instructor could be a sexual predator. Lesley Anne Steele’s was, and almost three years ago she suffered a humiliating and degrading sexual assault. Thankfully, her instructor, James Bennett from west Fife, was convicted. Yet even after that conviction, he continued to be a threat to young women, as he was permitted to continue as a driving instructor.
However, picking Lesley Anne as one of his victims was the biggest mistake that Bennett made. She is not to be messed with at all, and has a steely resolve—Steele by name, steel by nature. She was determined that what happened to her would never be allowed to happen again and waived her right to anonymity so that she could tell her story. That is when she got me involved.
Shortly after the incident, Lesley Anne wrote to me:
“On the day of the trial, Mr Bennett was found guilty of assaulting me and with immediate effect was placed on the sex offenders’ register. I was relieved that this was finally over and thought that Mr Bennett wouldn’t be allowed to continue to teach. The following day I received a call from a friend who had just seen Mr Bennett out teaching. Then my partner spotted Mr Bennett on the Monday, picking up a pupil close to our house.”
Now, that is rubbing her nose in it. He was close to her house, in the small village that she lives in.
Together, Lesley and I have discovered massive failings in the Driving Standards Agency and loopholes in the law. Lesley Anne received an apology from the predecessor of the Minister here today, and the DSA and the then Minister made commitments to make substantial changes. Many of those changes were made, but the law remains the same. All of that happened two years ago. I am frustrated that such urgent legislative changes have still not been made.
There are more than 40,000 approved driving instructors in the UK in whom we entrust our safety on the roads. The overwhelming majority of them are upstanding members of society. My issue is not with them, but with those who seek to tarnish their reputation—those who are a threat to our learner drivers. The nub of the issue is that the Driving Standards Agency does not have the right to suspend an instructor from the register of approved driving instructors. It does have the power to remove, but only after the full procedure is followed, including an individual’s right to appeal. If the offence committed is serious, but not serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence, the instructor could operate for a further 42 days after conviction. I have no objection to the individual’s right to dispute the proposal to remove, but I do not see why that cannot be undertaken under suspension. The Government agree with me, and I want to give them some credit for the progress that they have made.
First, the Minister at the time admitted that there was a loophole, and admitted the mistakes that had been made and the flaws in the system. He made a personal apology to Lesley Anne, and I thank him for that. Secondly, the DSA and the Government introduced enhanced criminal record checks for all current and future instructors. That process, conducted during the past year, weeded out eight offenders who can no longer pose a threat to learner drivers. If it were not for Lesley Anne, those people would still be on the road. Thirdly, they changed the complaints procedures and customer care, so that complaints, such as those made by Lesley Anne, will be dealt with in a more sympathetic and effective manner. However, it should not require the involvement of an MP to get such a complaint dealt with seriously. The profession of driving instructor is now a notifiable profession for the Home Office and the Scottish Executive. If an instructor is convicted of an offence, the DSA is automatically notified, which was not the case before.
However, despite that progress, it is regrettable that two years on, the loophole of a lack of power to suspend remains in place. Some have suggested that instructors should be suspended immediately on being charged, not just when they are successfully prosecuted. However, the requirement to prove guilt, rather than simply allege, is a right that must be protected. Malicious allegations should not be permitted to have more effect that they already do. During a debate in Westminster Hall in November 2006, the then Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), told me:
“Current legislation is clearly deficient, and we need to change the law through primary legislation as soon as we can to ensure that we have the power to suspend people immediately on conviction for such offences.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 28 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 54WH.]
In the past two years there has been at least one case of a driving instructor being successfully prosecuted but not jailed for that offence. David Austin from Suffolk was convicted of sexual assault. I understand that he has been removed from the register, but I do not know whether he was teaching after conviction and before he was removed. If he did not teach, it was his choice, because it is not within the DSA’s power to remove him. That must change. We must remove the power from those individuals to continue teaching.
Doing research for the debate, I discovered that the problem was identified before I raised it today. In 2005, in the Rochdale Observer, there was a story on a driving instructor who was convicted of sexual assaults on female pupils but who continued to teach. The article read:
“Despite being found guilty of nine offences last month, Peter Knowles, aged 67, has a legal right to keep giving lessons according to the Driving Standards Agency.”
The DSA knew about the situation earlier than the point at which I raised it in the House, which makes it more difficult to understand why we have not made any further progress two years on.
If my Bill does not make progress today, I hope that my contribution in the Chamber will spur on the Government—perhaps by some other mechanism—to introduce the legislation that is required. If the power to suspend is not introduced immediately, we will not be performing our duty to do everything that we can to protect learner drivers.
Lesley Anne has now passed her driving test and is a very proficient driver, no thanks to her instructor. She also recently married and is enjoying life. Let us pass the legislation and get the situation sorted, for her sake and for the thousands of young women who learn to drive every year. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Willie Rennie, Mr. Mark Lancaster, Ms Katy Clark, Nick Harvey, Mr. Adam Holloway, Gordon Banks, Jo Swinson, Linda Gilroy, Mr. Alan Reid, Danny Alexander, John Barrett and Mr. David Hamilton.
Driving Instructors Convicted of Sexual Offences (Suspension)
Willie Rennie accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the immediate suspension from the Register of Approved Driving Instructors of driving instructors convicted of sexual offences; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 27 October, and to be printed [Bill 154].
[19th Allotted Day]
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 rece