Skip to main content


Volume 704: debated on Wednesday 29 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the remarks of the Minister for Borders and Immigration, Phil Woolas, about limiting the population of the United Kingdom to 70 million represent government policy; and, if so, how they will achieve it.

My Lords, the Government are introducing the tough, new Australian-style points-based system so that the UK gets only the people it needs, and no more. We have the flexibility to alter the thresholds and are taking expert independent advice on where our economy needs migration. We also take into account the impacts on public services and communities.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response, but I remind him that when the Minister, Mr Woolas, was asked on the Radio 4 “Today” programme if he stood by his assurance that the Government will not let the population rise to 70 million or more, he answered rather more directly. He said, “Yes”. Given that population levels over decades depend on birth and death rates, and rates of migration in and out over that period, and that the Government have no direct control over any of those—except in some circumstances—will the Minister advise all of his government colleagues that they really ought not to go on the media making populist announcements about such things? It only makes them look foolish.

My Lords, for a clearer understanding of government policy and intentions in this area, I commend to the noble Lord a perusal of the debate on immigration controls held in another place on 21 October. I do so because, whether it is a half-page article that can be edited or, indeed, a two or three-minute question-and-answer session on Radio 4, a well debated three-and-a-quarter hour endeavour on the same subject in another place will be quite clear on the Government’s position and will, indeed, help to answer the noble Lord’s question.

My Lords, will my noble friend concentrate on what is at the heart of immigration policy, and say what is happening with the new UK Border Agency in securing the borders of the United Kingdom? That, surely, is the fundamental question.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question and, recognising the remonstration to be brief, I will splatter your Lordships with statistics. Since 3 April, 700 dangerous weapons including firearms, stun guns and knives have been prevented reaching the streets; 12,000 individual attempts to cross the Channel illegally have been prevented; 248 foreign criminals coming to the UK have been refused entry or arrested; a search of half a million vehicles has taken place, looking for illegal migrants; and illegal drugs worth £172 million, plus 1,000 forged documents and 465 million cigarettes worth perhaps £87 million have been seized. The list goes on: it is a success.

My Lords, while I welcome the noble Lord as a refreshing addition to the ministerial Benches in this House, will he in return welcome the relatively recent report on immigration by the Economic Affairs Select Committee of this House, instead of giving it the brush-off that it had when originally published? It made precisely the same point that Mr Woolas has refreshingly made.

My Lords, I fear that there may be something less than totally complimentary in the term “refreshing”, but I will take it in the spirit that I intend it to mean. First, I do not think that demeaning is the right term: there was a helpful contribution to the difficult and ongoing debate about how we deal with legal migration and illegal or clandestine migration. Your Lordships have, as ever, made a valuable contribution that will be part of the debate taking place. It is, of course, part of the reasoning taking us into the new five-tier system that replaces a much more complicated one. It is fairer on migrants and on the country.

My Lords, what has been the impact of on-the-spot fines imposed on employers found to have employed illegal immigrants?

My Lords, in my previous life as a trade union leader I was certainly concerned about the exploitation of illegal workers. The Government’s new initiative has resulted in—if I can find it, for Ministers have to learn the task of paper juggling. That is obviously beyond me for the time being, but I will find it. It is a success in terms of the amount of money raised, if I could find that, but I cannot. I think that it is some £850,000 in fines: I will find that and come back on it. If somebody asks another question, I will try and find a way of putting this answer into the next one.

My Lords, as Mr Woolas obtained the figure of 70 million from a population trends projection published in 2006, would that figure not have to be reduced sharply to take into consideration the reduction in the number of people arriving from EU accession countries and the number of asylum seekers coming to the UK? Before the Minister makes any claims about the likely benefits of the points-based system, would he not agree that the catastrophic rise in unemployment that is likely over the next 12 months is more likely to act as a disincentive to people arriving here to work than any changes in the immigration system?

My Lords, taking the latter point first, it must be the case that the attraction of the United Kingdom for prospective migrants will diminish if the economy provides fewer employment opportunities. I doubt that many people from whatever part of Europe, or beyond, are coming to Britain for the weather. I agree entirely that those issues will be a reducing factor. At the moment, our unemployment register has too many members, because we want full employment, among whom some 8 per cent are from the migrant workforce. There has not been a disproportionate effect so far, but it is important that we put in hand timely endeavours to control the immigration factor as we go into difficult times. By sheer coincidence—and on the basis of my previous excuse—I can tell the House that 850 fines, worth some £8 million, have been issued since 29 February 2008 to employers of illegal workers.