Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Swayne.)
I am delighted that this debate was granted by Mr Speaker and delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration can respond to the debate, because this is quite a busy day for his Department as regards immigration. I commend him and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the Immigration Bill, which will be debated this afternoon. There is no doubt that we are providing the warm-up act this morning—the opportunity for hon. Members to sharpen and master the arguments for this afternoon. On that note, I welcome the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and congratulate him on his new role. I can assure him that I shall be supplying some facts and information that may equip him for the debate this afternoon.
Conservative Ministers in the Home Office have made great progress in the last three and a half years in tackling the problems with our immigration system and the atrocious legacy inherited from Labour. One of the biggest concerns for my constituents is immigration controls. In the run-up to and during the general election in 2010, it was the No. 1 issue raised with me in my constituency—the issue on which my constituents were pressing for action. That is not surprising, because it is a rural constituency in the east of England, so it has many issues with seasonal agricultural workers and migrants coming in. My constituents wanted, and are eager to see, a wide range of effective reforms and policies put in place to keep our borders secure and the public safe.
I want to draw attention to a number of issues, particularly the ongoing consequences of Labour’s failures; cases from my constituency in which the immigration system has not worked effectively; the need for further reforms to remove foreign criminals, prisoners and terrorists; reforms to human rights laws; EU immigration, the free movement directive and transitional controls on Bulgaria and Romania; and the need to ensure that we have an immigration system that, importantly, lets in wealth creators, entrepreneurs and people who will make a positive contribution to this country, while preventing from coming in, and removing, those who should not be here.
We can appreciate what the Government have already done to deal with many of the problems in our immigration system and understand what more needs to be done only by understanding what went wrong with the system under the Labour Government. The Minister is fully aware of the past and the appalling legacy left by the Labour Government, and no doubt continues to deal daily with many of the consequences, such as the backlog of cases and appeals. It is a fact that immigration controls were ineffective. Immigration numbers had spiralled out of all proportion. Transitional controls had not been placed on the A8 countries when they joined the EU. Labour passed the Human Rights Act 1998, which gave illegal immigrants, foreign criminals and many taxpayer-funded lawyers new excuses to block deportation. We are still living with many of the consequences of that on a daily basis.
Three quarters of the new jobs created in the UK economy after 1997 went to people born overseas, and a monumental backlog of asylum cases had built up. Almost 500,000 asylum cases, which the previous Government failed to process effectively, accumulated and, as we now know, the figures were massaged to reduce the backlog, rather than people being sent home. We now know that there were not effective systems of control over management or even the processing of data at that stage.
I have an example from Witham of a constituent who came to Britain as an asylum seeker from Albania in 2002, applied to extend his leave to remain in January 2006 and, almost eight years on, is still waiting for his case to be determined. Such delays are wrong. It should never be forgotten that under the previous Government so many cases—too many—were left unresolved. It has been estimated that more than 3 million immigrants came to live in Britain during Labour’s time in office, and illegal immigrants could add another million to that. In Labour’s 1997 manifesto, it pledged that a Labour Government would
“ensure swift and fair decisions on whether someone can stay or go”,
but, as we now know, there was an open-door policy inviting everyone to come to Britain, and our border control system was completely dysfunctional and broken.
The Office for National Statistics has estimated that the UK’s population, which is about 63 million, could reach as much as 75 million by 2035, with two thirds of that increase arising out of the consequences of immigration. In my county of Essex, between 2004 and 2012, the estimated number of non-UK-born residents increased from 69,000, which was 5% of the population, to 104,000, which is over 7.5%. Across the UK in the same period, the number of non-UK-born residents rose from 5.2 million, which is the equivalent of 9% of the population, in 2004 to nearly 7.7 million in 2012, which is equivalent to more than 12% of the UK population.
As we have seen in newspaper reports this morning, population increases and, obviously, increases in immigration have an impact on our public services and infrastructure, but the strains placed on the country’s infrastructure and public services by the numbers that I have referred to have been kept hidden. Only now is the full extent of the facts emerging. A report prepared by the Department for Communities and Local Government in August 2007, which was not cleared for circulation—it was published only earlier this year, in response to a written parliamentary question—highlighted the fact that new arrivals
“can affect resource planning and make school and classroom management difficult”,
that there is
“anecdotal evidence of recent migration placing pressure on the availability and affordability of rented accommodation”,
and that the
“number of A8 migrants claiming childcare benefits, tax credits and income support are all rising.”
Immigration is not the only cause of pressure on our public services, housing and infrastructure, but it is a factor that cannot be ignored. The previous Government tried to shut down debate on this issue, but it is valid for the Government today to have this discussion. That reflects the fact that they deserve credit for their commitment to addressing these problems. Conservative Ministers can be proud of the actions that they have already taken to regain control of the broken immigration system. Net migration is down by one third. It is heading closer to the Government’s target, which is to bring it below 100,000 by 2015. The number of immigrants coming to Britain is at its lowest since 2001. Interestingly, under the previous Conservative Government, between 1991 and 1997, the inflow of migrants to the UK ranged between 266,000 and 329,000—a modest level—with annual net migration not exceeding 77,000, but after that, under Labour, inward migration increased year on year, in five of the next six years, from 391,000 in 1998 to 589,000 in 2004. It stayed above half a million until last year.
The UK Border Agency, one of the most poorly performing and discredited Government agencies, is being abolished and replaced. Bogus colleges have been exposed and student visa abuses tackled. New controls on the family migration route to tackle sham marriages—quite rightly—and to protect vulnerable people have been introduced and are welcome. The new Immigration Bill goes further and does more to control our borders and immigration flows. I welcome the measures, as my constituents do, to make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to come to Britain and live in this country. There is also the contribution that temporary migrants will be required to make to the NHS; we are seeing that in the newspapers just this morning.
We also have to cut the appeal routes. We have to make removals of illegal immigrants and foreign criminals easier and clamp down on the abuses of article 8 of the European convention on human rights and judicial activism that we have seen across the country. I would like to come on to some constituency cases that I have experienced.
The hon. Lady is listing a catalogue of problems with immigration, but does she agree that there are also huge benefits from migration, which companies highlight, and that legitimate, legal immigrants deserve fair and prompt access to this country, so that they can come in and contribute to it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I touched on earlier, immigrants are entrepreneurs and business people, and immigration touches on the skills agenda—another issue we could debate for a long time. Where people make a positive contribution, we should find the best routes—the right routes—to make them welcome and support them in visa applications and so on. We must be proactive on that front, but we can only do that and change the system in their favour once we have tackled the catalogue of problems, some of which I have highlighted.
The devastation left by the Labour Government was so great that we cannot overestimate the challenges faced by the Government and the Minister. Repairing the damage will no doubt take a long time. Labour’s legacy can still be seen across the country. I am sure that many hon. and right hon. Members see cases in their constituencies involving immigrants who have been deemed to have no right to remain in the UK, but, quite wrongly, pursue every legal avenue to remain here. In my constituency, there have been cases of immigrants who have outstayed their welcome. Such cases demonstrate the systemic failures of the controls put in place under the previous Government. I could reel off many cases, but I have a couple that I would like to highlight.
One lady from the Philippines was granted permission to enter the country in 2006 on a 48-month work permit to work in a care home. Since then, her husband, family and children, who have gone to local schools, have all come over. Once the visa expired and she was asked to leave, little action was taken, so the family remain in the UK. Last summer, the case was brought to my attention and an appeal to remain in the UK was rejected. To avoid deportation, the family lodged a further application to remain in the UK on human rights grounds in January this year, which was refused in June. The case is now going on and on. In July, they lodged another appeal, which is still pending. If that appeal is rejected, the family may undertake another appeal and prolong the process even more. Surely that cannot be right.
Another case in my constituency that has been ongoing for years involves a family from Nigeria who are here without any right to remain. They were informed that they should leave the UK two years ago, but they, too, embarked on a series of applications and appeals. Such actions are all about delay and prolonging the process for people who have no right whatever to remain in the country. That undermines public confidence in the immigration system. A stop must be put to repeated applications and appeals.
I welcome the measures in the Immigration Bill to limit the number of appeals that immigrants make. I urge the Minister to look at ways of going further in speeding up cases—the issue is the efficiency and effectiveness with which cases are determined—so that those who are deemed to have no right to remain in the UK can be removed without delay. Once someone has lost their case or appeal, unless there are genuinely exceptional circumstances, there is no reason why they should not leave voluntarily or be deported, if that has to be done, within a couple of weeks. They should certainly not be here for a prolonged period. That would obviously restore public confidence in the system and send a powerful signal to those who have abused the system. It would send a message that Britain is not a soft touch and will take tough action.
I also welcome the approach that will be taken to deporting foreign criminals before their appeals are held. I ask the Minister to consider extending that approach to other persons staying in the UK illegally and involved in repeat applications and appeals. An aspect of immigration controls that greatly concerns my constituents and the wider public is the way foreign offenders, prisoners and terrorists are able to remain in the country, despite the overt threat they pose to public safety and national security. The Abu Qatada case is symbolic of the wider problem with immigration controls and human rights laws: judicial activism and judgments from Europe that, frankly, undermine this country. We should be able to remove the likes of Aso Mohammed Ibrahim, who killed a 12-year-old girl, and serial Somali criminals Abdisamad Adow Sufi and Abdiaziz Ibrahim Elmi, without the courts and human rights laws interfering and our courts being lectured on what we should be doing.
Killers, sex offenders, violent criminals, persistent offenders and supporters of terrorists should face the automatic expectation of deportation. They should not expect to be protected by the ridiculous interpretations of human rights laws that the European Court of Human Rights, and sometimes even our own courts, provides. We should have a prison-to-plane approach, whereby foreign national offenders who have served custodial sentences are removed. When they leave prison, they should be taken to an airport and deported at the earliest opportunity. My constituents and the British public would feel greatly reassured if they knew that such dangerous criminals were not able to set foot again in our country and their communities. I welcome the fact that the Government are taking the matter seriously; that is shown in the way that they are initiating deportation proceedings sooner. As a result, the average time taken to remove a foreign national offender following the completion of a custodial sentence was lowered to 77 days in 2011. We still have 11,000 foreign national offenders in our prisons and thousands more who avoid custodial sentences.
The Minister knows of my concern about the fact that more than 3,100 foreign nationals who are subject to deportation orders are still in the country. Shockingly, that includes 2,300 people who have been on the list for more than a year, 25 of whom have been here for more than 10 years. Every day, hard-working British taxpayers are left to pick up the hefty bill for legal costs and other expenses for those individuals. We must put an end to it, and if that means going further on the Human Rights Act, reforming the European convention on human rights and taking unilateral action to defend parliamentary sovereignty from European judicial activism, my constituents and the British public would expect nothing less from a Conservative Government acting in the national interest.
I urge the Minister and his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to look at ways to deport European prisoners to their countries to serve their sentences. As he is aware, the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons enables European national prisoners to be deported to serve their sentences in the country of their nationality, but unfortunately, it is a voluntary agreement. There are 4,000 or so European national prisoners in our jails, but only 138 applications were received in 2011, with 127 being referred to other jurisdictions for consideration. The numbers being deported under the convention are too small. In 2007, 111 prisoners were deported, but that number is declining and has since dropped, meaning that not even 1% of European national prisoners serve their sentences in their own countries. Slightly more than 1,000 foreign national offenders from the European economic area were deported in 2011. I hope that the Minister will make that issue a priority in his discussions in Europe and seek to secure the deportation of more European national offenders.
The final aspect of immigration controls I shall raise relates to immigration from Europe. The free movement of goods and peoples is an important principle of the European Union, but the unrestricted access given to European nationals has added significantly to our population and the strain on public services. Of the 2.7 million residents in this country who were born in other EU countries, 1.1 million are estimated to have been born in those countries that joined the EU since 2004. In 2003, more than 500,000 nationals from other EU countries and 50,000 from countries about to join in 2004 were employed in the UK. By 2011, that number more than doubled to 1.29 million, which included more than 700,000 nationals from the 2004 intake of member states and more than 500,000 from the pre-2004 accession.
On top of that, there are an estimated 600,000 economically inactive EU nationals in the UK, many of whom will be accessing public services and benefits. This morning, I read that one person in 25 claiming jobseeker’s allowance is an EU immigrant, so the pressure on the public purse and public services is clearly enormous. Meanwhile, child benefit is being paid in respect of 40,000 children living in other European countries.
It cannot be right that our country faces an uphill battle, and legal action with Europe, to reduce some of the benefits being paid to EU nationals. I encourage the Minister and the Government to consider how we can renegotiate the position with Europe to bring common sense and sanity to our immigration controls, so that they do not prevent the working of the free market but enable us to limit immigration, prevent abuses of free movement rights and remove those who should not be here and are pushing the boundaries by accessing benefits and public services.
I also press the Government to make greater use of the powers already available through the free movement directive to restrict the right of entry and the right of residence on the grounds of public policy, public security or public health. It is almost inevitable that we would be challenged by the European Commission for doing so, but there are many cases, especially involving European national criminals, where we must take a firm approach and give the public confidence.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this matter before the House for consideration. I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate; I had problems with the tube and was 45 minutes behind time. I understand that there is a top 10 list of countries that contribute to the crime rate in the United Kingdom. Not all of them are European; they are: Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Nigeria, India, Jamaica, Somalia, Portugal, Pakistan, and our neighbour, Ireland. Does she feel that the Minister should focus on those top 10? If we can deal with the top 10, we will deal with the majority of the crime rate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his timely intervention. I was about to come to that list. It is right that we start focusing. There has been too much generalisation in the past, so we need a focus on some countries.
I have urged the Minister to take firm action on European national criminals. I also urge him to consider the transitional controls on Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants. The transitional controls are due to expire at the end of this year. First, immigration is about sustainability, and Britain cannot sustain or cope with a large influx from eastern Europe. Secondly, criminal gangs are an issue that is well documented; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) read out the list of countries. In the last 10 days, we have seen reports of Romanian criminal gangs committing crimes. They are flying into some of our airports daily. The experience of the last decade has led the public to feel anxious about new waves of immigration. This is an opportunity for the Government to reassure the public and give confidence about the new accession countries.
It is almost inevitable that we will feel the impact of new countries’ accession to the free movement directive. The Minister knows as well as anyone that more action is needed to establish an immigration system that is finally fit for purpose and has public confidence. The Government are taking the right steps towards creating a system of controls that enables wealth creators and entrepreneurs—those who want to make a positive contribution—to come to our country, as well as tourists, whom we invite, while keeping out people who should not be here. Once the excellent new Immigration Bill has gone through Parliament, I trust he and his ministerial colleagues will continue to focus on strengthening our immigration controls and taking action to secure our borders. As I have stated throughout this debate, we must send out positive messages to those whom we should welcome to this country and, importantly, reassure hard-pressed British taxpayers that we are fixing the broken system. We should give the public confidence in the immigration system.
It says much about 21st-century Britain that my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) should have introduced this debate. Although I am a proud Englishman, that is only part of my story. My late mother was twice a refugee by age 15, having been born during the early months of the war in Breslau, or Wroclaw, in what was then Germany and is now Poland. By age 15 she ended up in West Germany, where a few years later she met my father, who was serving in the British Army. Immigration has had an impact on me, given that one of my parents was an immigrant to this country, and both my hon. Friend’s parents were immigrants to this country. We love this country and the opportunities that it has given us. Despite much of what she said, we do not necessarily see immigration simply as a problem; it has some very positive sides. It is important that those elements are put on the record from time to time as well, and I shall endeavour to do so in my contribution.
We are going to hear the mantra that net migration has been cut by a third. It has become a key campaigning tool in recent months for the Conservative party, and it will no doubt be heralded as one of the Government’s central achievements as we approach the 2015 general election. Undoubtedly, important work has been done to crack down on some obvious immigration abuses, and rightly, as trust in the whole immigration system has reached an all-time low among our fellow Britons.
The Government should be applauded for the work that they have done to clamp down on bogus colleges, sham marriages, fake students, health tourists and the like. I noticed only this morning that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health rightly announced that we should not become an international health service. We should be proud that the NHS is free at the point of delivery. I have been an MP for central London for the past 12 years, and I have no doubt that health tourism has become increasingly acute in some areas, such as Paddington in my constituency. My constituents are suffering, and hard-working individuals’ taxes are not being used for their own purposes.
The Government have also been striving to address some of the pull factors that have hitherto made the UK such an appealing destination for those who wish to abuse generous western welfare and benefit systems. Nevertheless, we should be wary of the notion that the imposition of a cap alone and a broader clampdown mean job done on immigration. For all the talk about the squeeze on numbers, all too many Britons experience a different daily reality on the streets where they live and read a different story in their newspapers. Meanwhile, precisely the type of person whom we seek to attract to our nation—successful business people, entrepreneurs, investors, the highly skilled, top students and high-spending tourists—have encountered great difficulties entering the UK, just as we have been rightly discussing the need to compete in the global race. I fear that the disparity between the headline figures and reality is breeding ever more cynicism while doing economic damage.
I appreciate that time is relatively tight in this popular debate, so I will focus on three key concerns of mine. The first is the entry of business people to the UK, which as one might imagine is an acute day-to-day constituency issue for me as the Member for Cities of London and Westminster. The second is student visas and the third is the specific downsides in my central London constituency of the EU migration to which my hon. Friend referred.
Let me start with new migration broadly. As long ago as January 2007, I led a debate in the House of Commons on the possible impact on London of the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union. In particular, I sought to increase funding to Westminster City council, which was, even at that stage, being overburdened by the significant increase in rough sleeping, crime and antisocial behaviour following the 2004 accession of the so-called A8 countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic.
Unfortunately, the things of which I warned at the time have come to pass as Romania and Bulgaria edged closer to fully fledged EU membership. Many of us have seen at first hand the Roma gypsy encampments that have sprung up around Marble Arch; others appeared in the vicinity of Victoria station during last year’s Olympics. Some of the people living in those encampments were part of an organised begging operation, deliberately targeting the lucrative west end tourist market in the Marble Arch area. That encampment has since become merely the most visible example of a growing problem, with similar camps appearing outside the Imperial War museum—south of the river, near the constituency of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—and around the 9/11 memorial in Grosvenor square, to name just two sites here in central London.
Meanwhile I am receiving, and continue to receive, weekly reports from exasperated constituents who find spontaneous bedrooms in the doorways of their homes, as well as litter, excrement and worse in garden squares. There is also the issue of constituents and tourists who come into central London being harassed by aggressive beggars daily. Some local residents have even witnessed such issues in broad daylight. The people living in those eyesore encampments have, in my view, no intention of legally exercising their treaty rights to be here. Nevertheless, due to international treaties, particularly the EU-related treaties, they are incredibly difficult to remove, as the Minister is well aware.
Westminster City council and our local borough policing teams are now diverting vast resources to street cleaning operations, translation services and operations to tackle begging and organised crime. They are even spending vast sums of taxpayer’s money on transport to send problem migrants back to their countries of origin. Of course, little can be done if those individuals, within a matter of days, decide to return to the UK.
It is mostly local taxpayers who are paying the financial cost of national policy decisions. Until such problems are tackled, and until we find a way of stemming the vast tide of people coming from the EU, I am afraid that many of the Government’s declarations to have got a grip on immigration will mean precious little to average Britons. We therefore risk introducing a whole lot of cynicism to the system.
A number of constituents have written to alert me to schemes in ailing southern European economies to give non-EU migrants a fast track to citizenship if they invest in their nations. They know that a prize such as citizenship is enticing because it gives the applicant the potential prospect of moving to any country in the European Union.
It is terrible. Day in, day out, we see awfully desperate people from war-torn parts of northern Africa crossing the Mediterranean. We have seen the particular tragedies, which I suspect are only the tip of the iceberg, around the coast of Italy and Malta in recent weeks. The truth, however, is that many such individuals are able to make their way into the European Union. As a result, they could end up on these shores as well as in other parts of the Union within a matter of weeks or months. That provides yet another example of how difficult it will be to keep headline net migration numbers under control without resorting to the clampdown that we have seen in the past on highly skilled people from non-EU nations.
That brings me to my other concerns. I continue to be lobbied by business people and those in the education sector about the coalition’s visa regime, which continues to deter the highly skilled from engaging with the UK. I am aware that the Chancellor has made it clear in China that he sees that to be a problem, and that he wants to try to smooth it out.
Since the coalition took office in 2010, it has rightly made building the United Kingdom’s trade and export sector a core part of its economic strategy. That must be the case. We must have a sustainable recovery, which will not be built on ultra-low interest rates and a further boost in the housing market. It will have to be through investment from abroad in the globalised world in which we live, as well as ensuring that the export sector goes from strength to strength, particularly among small and medium-sized enterprises. It is a matter of some national shame that when it comes to China and India, two countries with which we have had long-standing connections, it is the Germans and, to a large extent, even the French who are teaching us some lessons. We need to ensure that we provide export credit guarantees that make it easier for our SMEs to thrive.
Foreign investment in the UK must and will continue to remain a hugely important source of financing, helping to support infrastructure development, employment and economic growth. However, those who wish to do business in the UK face a series of unnecessary obstacles, despite the Government’s best intentions. Such barriers include the perceived complexity of the UK visa system. I know that we will get some improvements, but there will still be that perception about time lags. It deters high-value business investors, visitors and workers. Along with resourcing issues at the UK’s borders and within certain embassies overseas, and the perceived lack of capacity at UK airports, that issue is potentially problematic.
I am not suggesting that we should just make life easy for tourists who come to this country, but there are some high net worth individuals—global citizens—living in places such as China who will come to London and spend £40,000 or £50,000 in one afternoon at Selfridges or Harrods. It seems madness that we are saying, “Don’t come here. Go and spend that in the salons of Milan, Rome or Paris.” That is the message that has hitherto gone out. I know that there are some improvements, which the Minister will no doubt tell us about.
The City of London corporation, in my constituency, regularly receives complaints from business. It believes that practical steps could be taken to improve the first interaction with our visa system. They include availability of own-language application forms and Schengen equivalence. The City corporation welcomes the announcement on the latter following the Chancellor’s recent visit to China, but the ambiguity of the Home Office’s subsequent statement has also been noted. The Government must work swiftly and clearly to make that announcement a reality.
Chinese applicants may have to travel up to 500 miles to appear in person at a visa-processing centre. Even after April 2013, applicants have had to submit to fingerprinting and face a non-refundable charge of £70. They have also had to supply a letter from their employer to prove that they have leave from work to travel. It is again perhaps not surprising that one study found that nearly a third of Chinese potential visitors abandon the UK visa process and instead visit other destinations, many of which may be in Europe.
The future is not just about China. There are anecdotal reports that, in countries such as Brazil, applicants are faced with taking several days off work to get visas processed. Anyone who needs to travel regularly is understandably reluctant to hand over their passport for what might be an unspecified period. The City corporation has been told that in some centres, passports can be surrendered for up to three to six months without feedback from the UK Border Agency as to when to expect a return of documents. While I would not say that that is an acute problem, as Member of Parliament for this constituency, that issue is not entirely unknown to me.
In contrast with the UK, key competitor countries have, since 2010, sought to simplify their procedures. For example, a visa for Australia can generally be processed in just 24 hours. The United States, which has been widely criticised for its visa bureaucracy, particularly in the aftermath of the terrible events of September 2001, has also overhauled its systems since President Obama gave the State Department 60 days to reassess its visa regimes for Brazil and China.
Before I turn to student visas, I must declare an interest as I have, for the past eight and a half years, been a member of the advisory board of the London School of Commerce, which is a private higher education establishment.
Britain’s world-beating education sector draws fee-paying students from across the globe, which we should be incredibly proud of. The standards and our high regard for our exam system mean that a British degree is regarded highly across the globe. Many young students who come to study will be in this country for only a short time—a year or two, and perhaps staying for a year after graduating to embark on their first taste of employment. They will return to their home nations as tremendous ambassadors for the UK for decades to come as they build wealth in their homelands. A 2011 Home Affairs Committee report suggested that no fewer than 27 contemporary foreign Heads of State were educated in the UK.
Our universities have hitherto been exceptionally good at tapping that ever-growing market, with a 9.9% market share in 2009 and export earnings calculated at about £7.9 billion. The value of international students to London as well as the UK, on the Government’s own figures, is believed to exceed £20 billion, and there is huge potential for that to grow.
I accept that there is no cap on international student numbers, but the Government’s explicit objective has been to reduce student numbers to bring net migration below 100,000 by the next election, in May 2015. The treatment of student and post-study work visas has become a regular complaint among top universities in my constituency, not just in relation to any of the bucket shop language schools or sham colleges. At one élite central London institution in my constituency, the numbers of applications from Indian and Pakistani students for postgraduate taught programmes are down by 14% and 11% respectively, as future employment prospects are a key motivator in those markets.
Another institution faces recruitment difficulties in disciplines such as accounting, economics, finance, management and law, and is finding it increasingly difficult to obtain transfers for high-level researchers to maintain an academic staff of the highest international repute and pedigree. Prospective overseas staff now perceive that it is more difficult to get a visa for the UK, and prefer to move to the US or Australia instead. There are other complaints about what is regarded as a very bureaucratic system, with enormous forms to be completed, and extortionate visa fees, which compare unfavourably with those of our western competitors.
We should not underestimate our global talent. One reason that our universities are so strong is that some of the finest and best academics work here. They should not just be regarded as overseas employees, because the reality is that many academics have to spend time abroad. They may have a visa to come to this country, but they need to go to a range of different events abroad to lecture and to find out more, and the sheer bureaucracy that administrative departments of our universities have to go through, daily marking where academics are at any one time, is an increasingly strong disincentive.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He is raising some real concerns, but is he also aware that academics find other processes frustrating, such as the fact that to be paid a couple of hundred pounds to examine a PhD viva somewhere, they have to go through the bureaucracy of proving their immigration status? That is completely disproportionate, because nobody comes to this country to get rich examining PhDs.
I sincerely hope that that is not the case. The hon. Gentleman, who represents a prime university town, will be well aware of such concerns. I am sure that such matters give the impression that we are not open for business in the way that we should be if we are to appeal to the brightest and best across the globe. It has to be said that many fledgling but highly reputable universities across the world are looking to attract some of the brightest talent in this country with absolutely open arms, and they would certainly not provide the evidence of reciprocal negativity that we see in elements of a bureaucratic, tick-box culture in the UKBA and the Home Office. It is a cliché to say that a reputation may take many years to build up but can be lost in an instant, but there is a real risk that the UK will lose its hard-won reputation as a country that welcomes trade, investment and the most talented students from across the world, at a time when the need for that international expertise and capital is very high.
I believe that there is a need for a change of rhetoric, because misconceptions are as damaging as actual practical barriers. The Government rightly wish to ensure that the UK is open for business. A passionate restatement of that goal both here this morning and in the main Chamber this afternoon, combined with some practical improvements to the visa process and the operation of our borders, should help to generate significant trade, investment and diplomatic benefits.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and to follow the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). I agree with many of his concerns about what our policies are doing and about many people being put off from applying to come here. The issue is not only the facts of the process, but the rhetoric and the impression that is given, as will always be true of any complicated system.
Let me give my assessment. I think that legal immigration has a substantial benefit financially and in the generation of jobs. We also benefit culturally from people coming here and bringing an international mixture, as we saw in the fantastic sporting achievements in the Olympics of people who have not, or whose families have not, been here their entire lives. We in this country benefit from immigration.
We need a system that works, that is fair and fast, and that discriminates accurately between people coming here legally and those trying to break the rules, but that is not happening. The Government must actively promote our country to the world to encourage people who would benefit the UK to come here—we have seen a bit of that in relation to China—rather than send out messages about our being so determined to clamp down on immigration and so fixated on a numerical target that we are prepared to accept the consequence of driving people away.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I find that when I talk to companies in our fantastic and world-leading high-tech centre in Cambridge, one of the two top issues they almost invariably raise is concern about the immigration system. Sometimes the issue of transport is raised first, but normally it is immigration, because those companies are trying to get staff and are experiencing delays. Bad decision making holds them up. If errors are made, they have to let people go: they simply cannot wait, because they need staff who can travel.
Companies sometimes cannot get customers to come to the UK. One company I recently visited told me that prospective clients in the US whom it wants to invite over to look at a product, which sells perhaps for £500,000, are increasingly not US citizens, but citizens from China, India or elsewhere, so they cannot come into the country. It does not help British sales and exports if the person to whom companies are trying to sell cannot get into the country in a reasonable time scale. That hits our exports and reduces our ability to sell around the world. Such issues come up time and again.
The Minister kindly came to Cambridge to meet a small selection of organisations, and I hope that he found it an interesting experience. I believe that his heart is absolutely in the right place. I am sure that he does not want our approach to cause harm to Britain, and that he would like nothing better than to get rid of the problem—the bureaucracy and other issues—but that problem absolutely must be tackled.
There are no doubt problems associated with illegal immigration, but that is a very different category. People have come here illegally, been brutally exploited by gangmasters and become stuck in a grey economy or trafficked, which is certainly not the right route. We want people to apply through the correct process, but we need to treat them correctly and make appropriate decisions, which we are not doing.
If we are to have a good debate about immigration, we need more accurate numbers, with correct information about who should be here and who actually is here. We simply do not yet have that information, or the competence required, which undermines the ability to make rational arguments or have confidence in the system. Until recently, we had no idea how many people who applied as students were here and had overstayed, let alone who they were.
We should target people who are not here legally, and not get it wrong. Some of the texts sent out by Capita, based on Home Office data, were targeted at people who are British citizens. There are a huge number of errors in those data, and there continue to be problems. The Vine report on e-borders—even the bits not redacted by the Home Secretary—have highlighted that about 650,000 alerts about potential drug and tobacco smugglers were accidentally deleted. That is not the standard of competence that we need from the Home Office.
The problem is not new. The previous Government had the problem of an asylum backlog, with some 500,000 cases discovered sitting there and awaiting a decision. Such bureaucratic incompetence is a problem for all Ministers, none of whom would want such things to be going on, but the problem is still there.
It is only fair to put it on the record that the redaction on the part of the Home Office should not necessarily be seen as sinister or as trying to pull the wool over British people’s eyes; some genuine security-related issues were obviously in the Home Secretary’s mind in that regard.
Indeed. I do not want to go into that issue in detail, but the Home Affairs Committee has asked the Home Secretary to let it see that document in private, but so far she has said that she will not do that. I hope that she is not suggesting that the Select Committee is a risk to national security; I am sure that she would not want to say that.
We must have exit checks back in place. We need to know who is leaving, so that we can tailor our resources more appropriately. When someone applies for a repeated visa, we have no idea whether they leave promptly every time, or whether they stay until just before they reapply. That absurd system means that we cannot tell the person who has been repeatedly breaking the rules from the person who has been repeatedly sticking to them. Exit checks were scrapped many years ago by the previous Government, and it is now a struggle to bring them back in. We must fight for their return, even though the Vine report was not encouraging on that.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster talked about students, from whom we benefit massively. Education is one of our biggest exports. Students who come here to study pay very large fees. They contribute to society while they are here, and many want to stay on and work here, and it is fantastic to keep the people whom we have just trained. Those who go back benefit us in many other ways. As the hon. Gentleman said, many world leaders and company leaders have trained here. We do fantastically well from a network of people who go on to act as British ambassadors. None the less, the messages that get sent out are problematic. The hon. Gentleman spoke about post-study work. We should make it far easier for people to come here and work and use the skills that we have given them. I hope the Government will move on that matter, because there are great benefits to be had.
We also have an issue around rhetoric, which is becoming increasingly unpleasant and inaccurate. A recent headline in The Telegraph said that there were 600,000 unemployed European Union migrants in Britain. The definition of unemployed in that instance was interesting, because it included schoolchildren, pensioners and a range of other people whom one would not normally think of as unemployed. They were not a problem, but that is the rhetoric that we see. The Government have touched on that matter. I am sure the Minister and I will disagree over the appropriateness of the “Go home” vans and of some of the other messages that are put out. Today, the Home Secretary has announced that the “Go home” vans will no longer be used. I am pleased about that because they were deeply inappropriate. We must not play into that unpleasant media rhetoric that criticises the benefits from immigration.
We must fix the decision-making process around individuals, because such errors are replicated. People get concerned when they hear stories of errors being made, and there are too many. Anybody who has a constituency case load will see bizarre decisions being made and things that do not make much sense. The Home Office tries to correct such decisions when they come up. I pay tribute to the regional account manager, Saleah Ahmed, who has helped me with a huge range of cases, but it should not be the role of MPs to spot that people have got things repeatedly wrong. Those decisions make a big difference and they get around the world. A perverse decision was made in a recent case: an Indian student who was required to have a certain amount of money in their bank account ended up being just £20 short of a large sum, due to currency fluctuations just before the decision. Any reasonable system would have spotted that the reason was a drop in the rupee by a few per cent., and would have concluded that the person deserved to pass the test, rather than failing them and causing huge problems.
We must do more work on those errors, which must be the bane of the Minister’s life. The number of successful appeals is quite alarming, as is the number of cases which the Home Office ends up not even defending because it accepts that it has got it wrong. The Home Affairs Committee has detailed many examples of such cases.
On the separate issue of asylum and refugees, which none of us wants to see conflated with general migration, the Select Committee recently published a detailed report on the asylum position. We found people waiting some 16 years for a decision on what should happen. I have constituents who are waiting. They contact the Border Agency every year asking for a decision and are told, “Not yet, we will let you know later.” That is totally unacceptable. We cannot put things in a box marked “complex cases” and then leave them there. These are people who have been stuck in this country for years. One constituent of mine has been waiting for 14 years. They are uncertain of their future and of what to do. We should never do that to people. People deserve a decision, and those decisions need to be correct and accurate. One problem with appeals is that the Government lose so many of them. I am sure that there are people who are trying to delay making a decision, but there are also those who have a genuine problem and a genuine case.
One of my constituents had been sentenced to death in Iran because he had converted to Christianity. He applied for asylum and included a copy of his death sentence and was told that that was not enough evidence that he was at risk. I would love to know what sort of proof most people have. That situation has now been corrected, and it did happen some five years ago.
We need better training and a system that is focused on ensuring that decisions are right. We have staff who appear to believe that their job is to try to stop people claiming asylum. That was highlighted by the independent inspector, who said that caseworkers were selective in the use of information to support the case for refusing asylum. Caseworkers should aim to make a decision that is correct rather than one not to let people in. There have been some horrible cases. In one case, the caseworker quoted
“independent country of origin information which stated that women in Iraq could gain effective help from a local police station, but omitted the preceding sentence which stated that ‘women have been sexually assaulted by the police when reporting to a police station.’”
That somewhat undermines the support one could expect from a police station, and makes it a far more reasonable action not to go there. We are trapping many of these people in a cycle of hopelessness, leaving them very vulnerable. I suggest Members look at that report and the British Red Cross report on destitution.
Let me summarise some of the good things that the Government have done. They have ended the routine use of child detention for immigration purposes. It was one of the great shames of the previous Government that thousands upon thousands of children were detained for immigration purposes; that should not happen. I am pleased that the Government have made the change. As has been debated in this place previously, however, more constraints have been put on family migration, making it hard for many of my constituents to be reunited with their families. Families are being torn apart, and I know the Government are looking more carefully at that.
There are also the oddities in our immigration system, which I have raised with the Minister before, and I thank him for his recent letter. For example, children born to unmarried British fathers before 2006 are not entitled to British citizenship due to a loophole in the way that the legislation was written under the previous Government. They would be so entitled if they were born after 2006. I am pleased that the Minister accepts that that should be changed. I hope that there will be some legislative vehicle to do that. Will he comment also on the related question of what happens to people in that category who are raised in the UK and who are effectively stateless? Other countries believe them to be British—they have a British father and they are in the UK—but we do not allow them British citizenship.
Another matter raised with me was the effect of border controls on families whose children have a different surname from the parent with whom they are travelling. Quite rightly, when that happens, the border force asks why such children are being taken out of the country; that is absolutely appropriate. However, it is incredibly frustrating for a parent who travels constantly, because they must carry with them seven legal documents, including a birth certificate and a marriage certificate. That seems inappropriate. A suggestion has been made to the Passport Office that parents’ names should be listed in a child’s passport. That would simplify the situation and enable us to stop cases where children are being abducted, and not stop families who are trying to travel properly. I hope the Minister will consider that matter.
We must have immigration controls, but we also need exit checks to be introduced competently so that we know who is here and who is not, which will result in better data. That will allow us to have a properly informed debate rather than the anti-foreign rhetoric that is heard far too often from both the media and political parties on the left and right. I want the Minister to ensure that we have a system that works and that makes the correct decisions so that the right people who will benefit Britain can come in quickly and easily and that the people who are not allowed here also get fair, reasonable and accurate rejections. I hope the Minister gets a reputation for making our decision-making process entirely competent and not politically sexy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on providing us with an interesting aperitif to what will be a very full day of immigration debates, with the Immigration Bill going before the Commons later today. This is a useful warm-up, and we have had a good introduction and debate on some of the different challenges that we face in this complex matter.
I have only been on the immigration brief for just over 10 days, having been moved to it by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I have had jobs in Government in Northern Ireland, the Home Office, Justice and prisons. However, I have a feeling that immigration will remain one of the key debating issues and challenges during the next 18 months for all of us from different perspectives.
My constituents want some of the things that the hon. Member for Witham wants, and I am sure that your constituents want them too, Mr Crausby. We want effective controls at the border; we want to see foreign criminals who have committed offences in this country being deported; we want illegal immigrants tracked, picked, accounted for and, if need be, deported; we want speedy and effective appeals, so that people can have their just case looked at accordingly; and we want a crackdown on sham marriages and sham colleges. Those are issues that any sensible Government will want to deal with. Nobody has ever said that immigration was easy and those challenges are not easy, but potentially they are common ground that could be looked at.
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and for Cambridge (Dr Huppert); my constituents also want some of the things they have said they want, as I am sure yours do, Mr Crausby. My constituents want people from abroad who have modern skills to come to this country to help industry, wealth and products to grow.
I have major industries in my constituency in north Wales such as Airbus, which makes one of the most high-tech products in the world today, the Airbus aeroplane system. Sometimes those industries need skills from outside the EU, which will help to ensure that 6,500 people in my constituency keep their jobs in competitive markets. The same is true of what the hon. Member for Cambridge said about the science-based technology in his constituency, and of the needs of the City of London. I attended a City breakfast only last week, which was just outside the constituency of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, where the issue was not immigration but positive immigration, including how we can bring in skills to Britain and develop them in this country.
The student market brings in millions of pounds in investment, not only fees and expenditure but that unquantifiable issue that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, which is good will. I still love my university town and I left 35 years ago. People will still come to this country and love it because of the investment and skills that we have given them to compete in the world at large in the future. Nobody says immigration will be easy. However, those positive signs need to be considered alongside some of the challenges that exist.
The hon. Member for Witham mentioned the previous Government. I served in that Government for 12 of those 13 years, although I did not cover any immigration post at any time. However, let me say that there were challenges, and mistakes were made. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said that, and we need to assess some of those challenges when we reflect on the debate on immigration.
Let me say to the hon. Lady, and indeed to the Minister, that “day zero” did not commence and end when the Labour Government left office; “day zero” happened three and a half years ago and this Government and the hon. Lady now have a record to account for, regarding their actions during those three and a half years. I hope that today, including during this afternoon’s debate, we can potentially have her standing up not only to attack the previous Government but to pose some serious questions to the Minister about this Government’s performance.
Potentially, we need to look at why the number of people being stopped at our border, including checks on people from outside the UK, has halved since the general election and since this Government came to power. Statistics from the Library show that, comparing the first quarter of 2010 with the second quarter of 2013, checks at the border have fallen by 46.4%, from 26,378 to 14,134.
The Minister needs to be aware of the serious issue of deportation of criminals. Why has the number of foreign criminals being deported fallen by 13.5% in the past three years, from 5,471 to 4,730? As a Justice Minister, I visited Nigeria to negotiate the agreement on prisoner deportations, and I did the same in Vietnam and in China. However, the number of foreign criminals being deported under such agreements has now fallen. The Minister needs to account for that fall.
One of the interesting aspects of this debate has been that only the hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned the issue of labour markets associated with European immigration, which is a big issue. Will the Minister say why the number of people fined for employing illegal immigrants has halved since the general election? Such fines act as a deterrent. I want to know why the number of people who have been prosecuted since 2010 for not paying the minimum wage is only two. The Minister and the hon. Member for Witham know that there are many cases where people are being exploited and undercut, and where such enforcement is required.
The Minister needs to respond to some of the points that the hon. Lady made about waits and competence on tier 1 visas. Why is it that it took 30 days for a tier 1 visa to be processed in 2010, yet according to the response from the Home Office to a parliamentary question the delay in 2012 was 83 days? Innocent as I am in the first week of covering this brief, I also want to know why, for example, fingerprinting of individuals entering the UK illegally at Calais was cancelled by this Government. That was one of the self-evident controls that we need to consider in relation to this issue.
What is the Government’s answer to that question? The hon. Member for Cambridge has mentioned it. What we have, rather than effective action on some of those issues, is ad vans driving around some sensitive parts of our great capital city, with the simple message, “Go Home”. I would like the Minister to pay attention for a moment, if he would, because I believe that those ad vans are just a pilot. If I had watched “Question Time” on Thursday night to hear what he said, I would know that they were a pilot that could be rolled out yet this morning, in the Daily Mail, I read that sources close to the Home Secretary have said that the ad vans will be cancelled. Perhaps the Minister will say once and for all whether what he was saying on Thursday is true—or is what the Home Secretary has been reported as saying today true and the ad vans are being scrapped?
The Minister knows that my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) has said that she does not believe that those ad vans were a positive development, and I share her view. I hope that the vans have been cancelled, but perhaps the Minister will say whether he is the source close to the Home Secretary or somebody else is. What is the position on those vans?
We need to look at all the issues I have mentioned. However, the Government’s Immigration Bill, which we will debate in detail later today, examines just some of the issues relating to the major challenges that we face. Some real concerns have been expressed about the Bill regarding the ending of appeals for certain categories of migration. I might be old-fashioned in this respect, but I think the right of appeal still remains an important issue and we will test the Government on it when we debate the Bill.
The right hon. Gentleman will have gathered from my contribution that I am relatively liberal on matters of immigration. However, there is also no doubt in my mind, after 12 years as a constituency MP, that the abuse by immigration lawyers and others in the legal system is nothing short of a national disgrace. The idea of streamlining this system should be wholly welcomed across the House.
We will look carefully at that issue of appeals. Part 2 of the Immigration Bill proposes ending appeals, apart from administrative reviews, for a number of categories of immigration. We must look carefully at that issue, because I want to ensure that we speedily remove people who should not be here, and that we do not speedily allow in people who should not be here. However, we must also ensure that people have an opportunity to receive a fair hearing.
Will the Minister tell me—either now, later today or in Committee—why 50% of the current appeals are upheld? If 50% are upheld, that means that the original decisions in those cases were wrong. If the appeal mechanism is removed, what guarantees do we have that that 50% of appeals will not be unfairly dealt with by the Government? That is all I am seeking in this debate—fairness. With the Minister, I will happily consider how we can streamline the appeals system and make it more effective. However, if ultimately 50% of appeals are upheld and we remove that right of appeal, that 50% of appeals will not even be considered, which means that people from abroad will not come here and potentially will not have happy marriages, employment or other aspects of life, because of a failure of initial decision making. That is where we need to go back to, rather than potentially having a debate about who should and should not be here.
The landlord issues that are dealt with in the Immigration Bill are, in theory, perfectly acceptable, but we will need to consider the practical details of how they will work and how, for example, we can expect landlords to know the 400-plus types of visa or conditions of entry that might exist. In particular, constituencies such as that of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster have a high turnover of students and other people coming here, and the same applies in many big cities. How landlords can be expected to do that job practically will have to be tested later today. We will also look in detail at the health fee issue and give the Bill a fair wind to test such issues in Committee.
I suspect that we will need to go to the basics of all the issues I have mentioned today. I noted that, with the exception of the hon. Member for Cambridge, the labour market issues that we want to look at when considering the Bill were not discussed by the hon. Members for Witham and for Cities of London and Westminster. We need to address those issues in detail.
I strongly believe that some labour market issues also relate to where the vast majority of new immigrants to the United Kingdom come from: wider Europe. If the labour market is undercut by people forcing down wages, poorer conditions and gangmasters in areas such as the east of England putting people into multiple occupations, which drives down wages and treats people casually, there will be tensions in society because people who are indigenous to the United Kingdom will feel that they are treated unfairly.
Today and during the weeks that the Minister and I will spend together in Committee, I want to look at the Government’s response to issues such as doubling the fines for breaching minimum wage legislation, strengthening the rules covering gangmasters, introducing measures to prevent migrants from being crammed into unsuitable accommodation such as overcrowded mobile homes to cut labour costs, giving local councils power to take enforcement action on the minimum wage, extending the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, stopping rogue landlords providing overpriced accommodation, and targeting areas with high levels of foreign recruitment, particularly in relation to recruitment agencies. We will test the Government on such issues, and I give credit to the hon. Member for Cambridge for touching on them. They must be addressed.
I want to give the Minister a few moments to contribute to the debate, and I would welcome it if his opening comment clarified the question of ad vans. I do not like reading Government announcements in the Daily Mail. I am sure what it says is true, because the Daily Mail would never, ever portray as a fact something that is not. Perhaps in his opening comment, he could tell us that he agrees with the Home Secretary that ad vans should be scrapped. If that were his opening sentence today, it would be welcomed on both sides of the House, certainly by the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition and Labour. It might be a U-turn from what he said on Thursday, but it would be a good, clear policy.
I hope that the Minister will touch on how many texts were sent to British citizens—I am waiting for replies to parliamentary questions on this—and the basis of the information for that part of the campaign. Instead of looking at gimmicks and rhetoric, we should look for cross-party consensus on dealing with illegal immigration, effective border controls, removal of foreign prisoners, stopping sham marriages, closing sham colleges, and ensuring that in our rhetoric and policy we do not deter the positive people who want to come to the United Kingdom. We must make it easier to attract skills and easier to bring students here. We must use immigration as it has been used historically: as an engine for growth instead of a rhetoric for fear.
It is a pleasure, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing this debate. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said that she served an aperitif, or a full plate of hors d’oeuvres. This is the first chance I have had to welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his post. He said that he has been doing the job for 10 days, and I look forward to our debate in the House this afternoon and the time we will spend discussing the Bill in Committee.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the issues are important and referred to the labour market. He also referred to the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Democratic Unionist parties. I am astounded that no Labour MPs thought the subject worth debating. I am sure their constituents raise the matter with them all the time, and I cannot for the life of me understand why they did not want to come here. Perhaps the previous Labour Government’s record will explain that.
I am sure they are wise to trust the right hon. Gentleman, but I have not noticed before in debates that because he is a Labour party spokesman, Labour Back Benchers did not believe it necessary to come along and contribute.
I want to spend some time responding to the points raised by my hon. Friends, but first I want to explain briefly why the issue is of great concern. My hon. Friends the Members for Witham and for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) put their finger on it when they said that we inherited a shambles. The previous Government had let migration run out of control at more than 250,000 a year.
The asylum system was also out of control, and my hon Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) alluded to that. When we came to office, we inherited 450,000 cases that had not been concluded; my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), did a sterling job in sorting that out and driving the number down. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that we have not completed that work; we are still working through some very old cases. We know from the work of the chief inspector of borders and immigration that there was a period from 2007, under the previous Government, when, when there were queues, checks were not carried out, to manage the length of the queues. That does not happen now. We have an operating mandate: everyone who arrives at an airport is checked.
The right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned the one mistake that I believe the Labour party has acknowledged. The lack of transitional controls on accession countries in 2004, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned, was a huge mistake and is part of the reason that immigration is an issue. Parts of the country saw significant and fast growth in the number of migrants, which put public services under pressure. However, the right hon. Gentleman did not mention something that the Labour party skips over. During its period in office, the number of people coming from outside the EU was twice as high as the number from inside the EU. Yes, the Labour Government made a mistake with transitional controls for EU migrants, but what they do not talk about is the fact that twice as many came from outside the EU and there were no legal constraints from EU rules. They let that run out of control.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster talked about the importance of welcoming people who contribute. That is absolutely right. Ministers are always clear, although this is not always reflected in what is reported, about achieving a balance. We want the best and the brightest to come to Britain and we want people to contribute. The Queen’s Speech referred to an immigration Bill and it was clear that it would have two purposes. One was to attract those who wanted to come and to contribute, and the other was to deter those who did not. We must get both parts of that story right; I will touch on the detail in a moment.
My hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster and for Witham talked about issues with EU nationals and where we need to tighten up on those who abuse free movement, particularly when there is criminality. There are some real issues of criminality in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster. Immigration enforcement officers are working closely with his local authority and the Metropolitan police to deal with those involved in what we tend to call low-level criminality, but which has a real impact on UK nationals and visitors who want to come and spend money in our country. We have taken significant steps.
The real issue with EU nationals is that although we can remove them from the country and we have had some successful operations—for example, we removed a significant number of Romanian nationals from Hendon— they can come back. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster should be aware that we are looking closely at the legal scope to take a tougher approach, and I hope that he will welcome that.
My hon. Friend should also be aware that because of pressure from the Home Secretary at EU level, we finally got the message home. At the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 7 and 8 October, the Commission accepted for the first time that there is an issue with abuse of free movement rights. Commissioner Reding stated that free movement is a fundamental achievement, with which I agree, but the Commission also noted that free movement rights are weakened by abuse and that it would support member states to use existing EU tools—including sanctions such as expulsion and re-entry bans in certain circumstances, with the appropriate safeguards—to fight such abuse. That is very welcome.
The Home Secretary raised those issues with the Commission and with colleagues from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, and we have started to build a sense that there is a problem to solve. If we solve that problem and the problems of abuse, we will strengthen the benefits of free movement across the EU, from which many British citizens benefit, and make Britain a more attractive home for inward investment. I can give my hon. Friends the Members for Witham and for Cities of London and Westminster some comfort that we are addressing that situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster will also be familiar with Operation Nexus, on which we are working with the Metropolitan police to identify foreign nationals at the point of arrest and to consider where we have immigration powers that may be used alongside criminal justice interventions to remove people from the country who should not be here and who are potentially involved in criminality.
Operation Nexus is a campaign run by Scotland Yard, which I understand has indicated that it is seeking more resources so that it can do its job better. I understand that Scotland Yard is seeking resources from Europe, too. Have those resources been allocated? If so, are they allocated from Government funds or through European funding?
On resources—I mean to present this in a balanced way—it is not surprising that about a third of criminals in London are foreign nationals, but that is not a hysterical point; it is understandable, because broadly a third of the population of London are foreign nationals. The Metropolitan police’s core job of addressing criminality involves dealing with a significant number of foreign national criminals. The number is not disproportionate; the proportion is about what would be expected, given that there are significant numbers of foreign nationals in London. The tools we are able to give to the Metropolitan police, working with our immigration enforcement officers, means that it can do that job more effectively. We have seen significant success, and we have started to roll out those resources in the west midlands, for example, and increasingly in other police forces across the United Kingdom. I think that will be helpful.
The Home Office is also leading work with the Ministry of Justice and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to address foreign national offenders. We have 16 priority countries—not 10, as my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said—including two EU member states, Portugal and Romania, which we are supporting in the use of the EU prisoner transfer agreement. We are working closely with colleagues in Romania to consider the effectiveness of Romanian criminals arrested in the UK being able to serve their sentences in Romanian prisons.
As the right hon. Member for Delyn said, we are working closely with the Nigerian Government. That work is not just the agreement, in which he rightly said that the previous Government had a role; the agreement had to be translated into Nigerian law, which has now been done. We have just signed a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Albania.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I want to address some of the points raised earlier in the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster talked about the importance of being open for business, and I draw his attention to an excellent one-page guide circulated yesterday by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames), who ran the all-party group on balanced migration. The document is an excellent quick guide showing some important statistics on Britain being open for business, the number of business visitors and how easy it is to get a job here after university.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster is right that there are issues, although, largely, they are not issues of perception, but that does not mean they are not important. Of course, part of the job that the Chancellor and the Mayor of London were doing last week in China was to ensure that perceptions catch up with reality. For example, in China the average time for a business visitor to get a visa to Britain is some eight days, and we are looking to make that even faster for high-value visitors. I am not pretending that there are no real issues on the business side, because there are, but, certainly for overseas visitors, we have seen very strong growth.
There are many perception issues, which is why we have to be clear about what we are doing. I regularly meet universities and businesses, and I have met the City of London corporation. We are incrementally improving the system, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is important for Britain.
My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to health issues and the pressure on St Mary’s hospital, Paddington, in his constituency. He will have seen today that the Health Secretary has published a significant independent audit, which has been peer-reviewed and shows that the NHS is failing to recover some £500 million of income that it should be getting from the foreign nationals that it treats. Frankly, I find it extraordinary that the Labour party, or at least its health spokesman—I do not know whether he talked to the right hon. Member for Delyn—has said that it will not support our proposals on that. I do not know whether that is connected to the Unite union’s opposition to those health proposals. In fact, Unite has said that health workers should not collect money from foreign migrants. I do not know whether Unite is setting Labour’s policy, but that statement is extraordinary. We have a national health service, not an international health service. We are not talking about not treating people, which is one of Unite’s scare stories; it is about charging people who have no right to free treatment.
If my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and I go to another European country, that country is much better at charging the UK for our health treatment; we are not very good at charging for such treatment. If we went to another country, we would be expected to use private health care. In some countries we would not get health treatment before paying for it. In the UK, though, we are talking about never withholding urgent treatment but ensuring that people pay for it, which is fair to taxpayers. I look forward both to the changes that we are making in the Immigration Bill and to my right hon. Friend’s proposals for charging overseas visitors and being more effective at recovering the money.
I will forgive the right hon. Member for Delyn because he has been in his job for only 10 days, but he should be aware that the Government who stopped fingerprinting clandestines at Calais were the Government of whom he was a member. That change took place in January 2010, which, as far as I can tell from looking at the calendar, was prior to the general election. Perhaps he should check. We will consider whether that is still correct and whether we could improve the process.
In her comprehensive speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Witham referred to ways of improving how we deal with cases. She is right, and several Members have touched on there being in-country issues in the United Kingdom when assessing cases, which is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary broke up the UK Border Agency. We now have a UK visas and immigration operation that has a real focus on customer service for people who are paying for visas and coming to the United Kingdom to work hard, study and contribute. We want to give them good customer service. We are not there yet, but we have significantly improved on the backlogs that we saw in 2012-13. We are trying to improve both the overseas performance we deliver and the performance in-country.
I will continue meeting universities, as I did with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge—I had an excellent meeting with his university. We have taken some of those meetings forward. I meet the Russell Group, and I meet other top-quality universities in Britain to address their real issues, so that we can continue to increase the number of university students who come to Britain while ensuring that those institutions that are selling not education but immigration permits, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster talked about, are put out of business and cannot abuse the immigration system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witham talked about people who make lots of claims and delay things, and she is right. I fundamentally believe that we should offer asylum to those who are genuinely fleeing persecution, but if the system is to work and to command public confidence, the flip side is that those whom we find do not need our protection—and where an independent judge agrees that they do not need our protection—should return to their country of origin. We should not have to spend thousands and thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money detaining those people and enforcing their removal. Everyone who abuses our system in such a way is damaging the interests of genuine refugees, to whom I want Britain to give a warm welcome and to enable them to rebuild their lives. [Interruption.] With the greatest respect, this debate was called by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham and I am trying to cover all the important points.
The Immigration Bill will streamline the immigration process and ensure that for foreign national offenders, if we can, we will have non-suspensive appeals so that, as long as they do not face irreversible harm overseas, we can deport them first and hear their appeal afterwards. In many cases, I suspect that will mean that we never hear the appeal, because my hon. Friend and I both know that the appeal is a mechanism to delay their removal from the United Kingdom.
We have had a comprehensive debate that is perhaps a warm-up for the Second Reading of the Immigration Bill, which I look forward to.