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Volume 733: debated on Monday 19 December 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will reconsider their curbs on immigration in the light of their effect on competitiveness and economic growth.

My Lords, we will not. We are clear that the United Kingdom remains open for business. Our changes mean that we will continue to welcome the brightest and best who have the most to contribute to this country. At the same time, we are putting an end to the unlimited migration of recent years that has created unacceptable pressures on our public services.

My Lords, I acknowledge that there is a need for some control, but the Government seem to have indicated that they will reduce the number of non-EU migrants who wish to settle here after they have completed their studies. Will the Government take note of a powerful letter, written about a month ago to the Financial Times, by a number of very eminent academics who came here as non-EU immigrants and who would not have come if they had been told at the start that they would not be allowed to stay?

My Lords, we will obviously listen to those academics but I have to say that the university sector as a whole is not complaining about what is happening. What we did was introduce a cap of just over 20,000 people, following the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee, on the number of skilled workers who were coming in. So far, in the first six months of this year, some 6,000 of those places were taken up—there is obviously a lot of slack in the system. There is no danger that any skilled workers are being denied the opportunity to come in.

My Lords, on the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, can we come back to the issue of universities and overseas students? The Minister has always maintained that the Government’s restrictions were aimed at bogus colleges. If we accept that, will he acknowledge that universities are now reporting that the policy is having an impact? First-class universities are being affected by the cap and first-class students are being turned away. Surely that part of the policy ought to be reviewed.

My Lords, obviously, we will keep all these matters under review as is appropriate, but the noble Lord will also accept that it is quite right that we should attack the bogus colleges, which his party took no trouble to attack over the years. That is why there was a dramatic rise in the number of people coming here allegedly to learn English or some other thing, who went to colleges where no courses were going on and virtually no one enrolled other than to get round immigration rules.

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept, as my noble friend said, that about 60 per cent of the non-EU migrants to this country are students and that, of those doing a proper degree course at the sort of university that my noble friend talked about, 98 per cent are compliant with immigration controls and return to their country—98 per cent? So we are losing both the opportunity of their fees coming into the university sector and the possibility of helping DfID export their skills back to their home country.

My Lords, I do not accept what the noble Baroness says, but if she can provide proper evidence for that, we will certainly look at it in due course. We are not aware that universities are complaining; we are aware that a certain number of private colleges— the bogus colleges to which I referred earlier—are complaining. That is why we will want to deal with that. In the main, I think it is quite right that we should tighten up on people coming to university and that is why, for example, there are rules about family members coming in which, again, the party opposite failed to introduce. Those have been tightened up for undergraduates but not for postgraduates.

My Lords, has any consideration been given, or is consideration being given, to taking students out of the immigration system? Now that the business of bogus academies has been dealt with rather effectively—I welcome that—would it not be sensible to recognise that the university sector is the most rapidly growing invisible export that this country has? It is simply not good enough to say that universities are not complaining. There may be some vestige of a lack of complaint from some body or other, but I would suggest that, if the noble Lord goes round the universities carefully, he will not find that that is the case.

My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord has to say about universities being a very valuable export—we acknowledge that—but there should also be controls on students coming in. One area where we provided stricter controls is on undergraduate students bringing in families, which was seen as a form of abuse. We were quite right to tighten up on that and to keep more general matters under review, and that is what we will continue to do.

My Lords, of course my noble friend is right to maintain his attack on bogus colleges, but the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, deserves real consideration. At a recent dinner attended by the Minister for Universities and Science, Mr Willetts, at which there were eight or nine historians each from a different university, they were unanimous that this is having a deterrent and potentially disastrous effect. All we need is a little more sensitivity in the interpretation of the rules, or to put students in a separate category.

My Lords, I acknowledge what my noble friend says. I am fully aware of these problems, having been the spokesman on higher education in this House, but there have been abuses. I referred to the fact of family members coming in with undergraduates. We have tightened up on that. I remember, as can many other noble Lords, that back in the early 1980s, when we first brought in fees for overseas students, we thought that we would lose out dramatically. We did not; we saw an increase in the number of overseas students coming in. I am sure that if we get this right and listen appropriately, we will continue to see a great many overseas students coming to our world-class universities.

My Lords, why does not the Minister agree with the sensible report that came from the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee? That raised the very issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that students should not be treated as migrants. We are sending out a message to all overseas students who would otherwise have come to this country—some in the public sector, some in the private sector—that they are a troublesome group who need to be controlled.

The very simple reason is that some—particularly in the private sector, which is why I referred to private sector colleges—were involved in an abuse. If there is an abuse of the system, we have a duty to tackle it, and that is what we have done.

My Lords, the Minister may be aware of a recent report from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry entitled Migration Reform: Caps Don’t Fit. It concludes:

“Our research shows that one of the main reasons companies recruit from beyond the EU is their desire to explore and invest in new, overseas markets”.

It also says that, if the UK’s economic recovery is to be export led, this is a particularly important consideration. Does the Minister acknowledge that?

My Lords, I think that I have followed what my noble friend has said. Obviously, we recognise the importance of universities—as I said in response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, they are a major part of our exports. However, I also see what my noble friend is getting at. I have not seen the research that she refers to, which talks about the need to bring in workers from outside the EU. However, the point that I was making in my first supplementary answer was that we have a cap on the number of skilled workers, and we have not got anywhere near that cap in the first six months of this year.