I beg to move,
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to immigration.
It is a privilege, an honour and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. Given the petition before us, the members of the Petitions Committee wanted to ensure that we addressed immigration fully, despite the fact that we have already had a number of immigration debates in the House—not least last week, on Second Reading of the Immigration Bill, which allows us to go further in tackling mass uncontrolled immigration. As a Committee, we thought it important that, although some of the petition’s wording was not quite what many Members would support, we did not just brush these issues under the carpet. We must tackle immigration in a responsible way, in a full and frank debate, to ensure that we can get the resolution and result that we all want: measured, controlled immigration.
This is a really serious issue. We wanted to ensure that we reflected the concerns of the population as a whole. I know from going around my constituency of Sutton and Cheam that immigration probably became the No. 1 issue during the election campaign—its last month in particular. That is reflected in opinion polls. It was Ipsos MORI, I believe, that recently came up with immigration as the No. 1 issue for people at the moment.
There are a number of areas in the petition, and I will take them in turn. One point is that there is a belief among the 198,000 who have signed the petition to date that many people are trying to convert the UK into a Muslim country. I do not particularly subscribe to that view. I can understand people’s fears given some of the headlines in the tabloid press and some of the comments on Twitter, Facebook and other parts of the internet, but we need to look at the situation as a whole.
Given such headlines and the reality of what is happening in places such as Syria and Iraq, and that we see people from the UK travelling to Syria to join ISIS, it is not surprising—indeed, it is very welcome—that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has come up with his statement on countering extremism. We are looking at taking tougher action against individuals. We are going to ensure that there can be extremism disruption orders on individuals who foment and preach hatred and encourage people to decide to remove themselves from their families and travel to those foreign areas to fight alongside people who, frankly, have a disgusting doctrine and no sense of respect for human life at all.
There is tougher action on premises as well: any premises that are hosting such extremism can be closed down. We are giving Ofcom more powers so that it will be able to close down TV and radio stations that are repeating those sorts of messages. We are reviewing schools and other public institutions—colleges and the like—where radicalism and extremism might be fomented. It is also important, and I welcome the fact, that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is having a review of sharia law in the UK. That review is a very important cornerstone of our counter-extremism policy.
I can understand people’s views in certain parts of the country where multiculturalism may have failed and stalled somewhat, sometimes because of the fact that so many people are coming into one area. We can look at Tower Hamlets and parts of the north, for example, where extreme groups have actually built up no-go areas for white British people. It was quickly stamped down on in Tower Hamlets, which was welcome. Vigilante gangs were walking around that area picking on people just minding their own business. That sort of thing has no business in the UK at all. However, only a tiny minority of people are committing such actions. We need to do more to stamp such behaviour out, hence the counter-extremism.
I will give one quick example of where community cohesion slightly breaks down, on a small scale, in my constituency of Sutton and Cheam. In the lead-up to my election, there was a controversial planning application for a small mosque on Green Lane in Worcester Park. I objected to it, as did a number of people, purely and simply because it was in totally the wrong place. There was no parking around and it would have been on a really busy junction that was already at capacity. It was rejected by the planning committee for that reason. However, it was conflated into anti-Muslim feeling among a few people around that area; the two issues got conflated.
There is an Ahmadiyya mosque nearby, in Morden. It is the biggest mosque in Europe; about 15,000 people worship there. A lot of residents in Worcester Park who do not particularly know the ins and outs of Islam thought, “Why do you want this small mosque on the corner of Green Lane? Why can’t people go to the massive mosque round the corner?” They did not understand that Ahmadis are one group that actually unites the Sunnis and the Shi’as, who both dismiss Ahmadi Muslims as not being of the faith, as apostate. Sending Sunnis and Shi’as to that mosque would be like sending someone from the Church of England faith to a Mormon church, frankly, given the different doctrine that they perceive the Ahmadis to have, even though in many cases that is just not the reality at all.
The mosque in Morden recently suffered a fire, which destroyed a lot of its administration offices—back offices. Fortunately, the mosque itself was not damaged. It happened on the day after Eid; if it had been the day of Eid, there would have been 10,000 to 15,000 people in the building. As it happened, there were, I think, 10—there were no injuries and certainly no fatalities. However, 70 firefighters put out that fire.
The police and a number of community leaders organised a number of community events to try to calm the situation down, because it was not clear at the beginning whether it was a race hate or religious hate crime. We believe that, fortunately, it was not such a crime. It was a couple of teenagers, one of whom has been given bail and is coming back in the new year; we are hoping that it was nothing quite as sinister. None the less, the fact that people had to go round the community and set people’s minds at rest shows the unease that there is sometimes and the awkwardness when it comes to keeping a cohesive community.
We also had an incident just before the election in my constituency, where stickers appeared on lampposts—I gather that this happened nationwide—saying “Voting is shirk”, implying that Muslim people should not vote. My religious community quickly took those down, so that was not representative. Again, it is a small group, trying to stir up trouble.
I thank my hon. Friend for that example. As she rightly says, situations around the country are sometimes exacerbated by a breakdown of community cohesion but are in no way reflective of the population, whether the Muslim or the indigenous British population —the Church of England population. Actually, I will correct myself. It is really important that, in describing the Muslim population, we do not bring together religion and ethnicity or race, because Muslims are not limited to Pakistanis, Bangladeshis or Arabs. There are a number of British-born Muslims. There are a number of people who have converted. There are a number of American Muslims and African Muslims. Muslims are represented in countries right across the world. It is important that we make that distinction even though, as I have demonstrated, it is easy to bring the two together by accident.
To return to my example, the final piece of the jigsaw in Worcester Park was a third group of Ismaili Muslims who bought a pub, not far from the controversial planning application site, called the Worcester Park Tavern, where they wanted to build a community centre. There were some issues surrounding the proposal—purely from a planning perspective, to do with things such as parking and traffic. However, because of the other two mosques, a lot of people in Worcester Park were whipped up—I felt that there was a bit of an undercurrent—into opposing the application because they were anti any Muslim group taking over the pub. In reality, however, Ismaili Muslims do not pray in the same way, and a number of them drink alcohol; they are a very different group.
Does the hon. Gentleman intend during his allotted time to refer to the majority of immigrants to the United Kingdom who are not Muslims? Does he intend to use the opportunity to talk about the positive benefits that migration gives and will continue to give to the United Kingdom, rather than playing into the hands of the xenophobes by constantly talking about the problems caused in some communities?
Absolutely I do. I am trying to set the scene by reflecting some of the concerns, which are the reason why 198,000 people have felt the need to sign a petition. We must bear in mind that the reference to Muslims is only one part of the petition; there are references to a number of concerns about immigration, such as benefits. I will come to those, but first I will finish describing the example that I was giving.
The Ismailis in the area decided not to take that planning application any further because they felt that if they were not wanted in that area, they would go somewhere else. That is to the detriment of Worcester Park, because the members of the Ismaili community around the area, whom I know personally, play a positive role in society. They are successful businessmen, and successful in their various other fields. They play an active role in their communities through charity and philanthropic work, and they have fantastic support networks.
To pick up on what the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, that is the case for so many people who follow the Muslim faith in this country. Their religion dictates that they should be charitable and philanthropic, and that they should look out for people more vulnerable than themselves. Looking wider than that, many immigrants, especially from the Arab world and Asia, share the values to do with the importance and benefit of a fantastic education, the need for hard work, the need to succeed and look after their families, and the need to build up support networks. I absolutely echo what the hon. Gentleman has said. Immigrants from a number of different backgrounds play a hugely positive role—not only economically, but culturally—here in the UK.
I want to cover the statement in the petition:
“Foreign citizens are taking all our benefits, costing the government millions!”
There is no doubt that a number of people who have come into the country claim benefits—either out-of-work benefits or, more likely, in-work benefits. People tend to come to this country to get on; they do not come for the fun of it. They do not move halfway across the world simply to do nothing in the UK. Often, they want to take a job, look after their families and make the most of the opportunities that the UK has to offer.
In the UK, immigrants from within the EU often get the same level of benefits as they would in their home countries, although that is something that we, as a Government, are trying to change. To most people from outside the EU, we do not make available recourse to public funds, and rightly so. Since April this year, we have introduced an NHS surcharge of £200 for each year of an immigrant’s visa, because NHS tourism becomes less likely if people understand that there is a cost attached to coming over here for healthcare.
Those facts do not stop people holding the view, which I have heard from some of those I have spoken to on the doorstep, that many immigrants come into the country just to claim benefits. They do not want to work; they just want to claim benefits. Sometimes, the same people also told me, “They are taking all our jobs.” It is a kind of Schrödinger’s immigrant, and we cannot have it both ways; there cannot be lazy people taking all our jobs. I do not know whether hon. Members saw the viral spoof Donald Trump quote the other day:
“I’m sorry Clinton, but my ancestors didn’t make their way to this great country to have immigrants come in and take their jobs!!!”
Although that quote was a spoof, it reflects some of the arguments that we hear around the country, which is why it is incumbent on us as politicians to make the case that some immigration is very good for the country, both economically and culturally, but that we need to address mass, uncontrolled immigration full on.
I have met, as I am sure have many of my colleagues in the Chamber, people in the construction industry and the trades—carpenters, plumbers, electricians—who find the situation incredibly difficult because they feel that they are being undercut by European workers or workers from further afield. I absolutely understand their concerns, but we must also understand that we, as people who use those trades, take such workers on. I have employed a Polish plasterer, and I know colleagues who have used Romanian builders. Why do we do so? Because they are cheap. If their work is good and they can undercut the market, that represents open competition, which I absolutely subscribe to as a free-market Conservative.
One thing that drives people to the UK is the fact that we have the fastest growing economy in the developed world and in Europe. Yorkshire created more jobs than France last year, and the UK has created more jobs over the past few years than the whole of Europe. While our economy is doing okay—better than it has been over the past few years—and there is double-digit unemployment in several southern European countries, it is no surprise that people are attracted by the UK and that they come here to better their lives and those of their families.
There are two ways to tackle that. Either we can tank our economy—I do not believe that anyone here would subscribe to that solution—or we can make our immigration policy less attractive to unskilled economic migrants or people with skills that we do not particularly want to attract. That will allow us to concentrate on attracting the very best skilled workers and migrant entrepreneurs to the country.
The final point that I will cover from the petition is the mention of footage showing foreigners desecrating British soldiers’ graves. I am not sure why that was put in the petition. There is some footage showing people kicking over the graves of a number of soldiers, not all of them British, in Benghazi, Libya, two or three years ago. It is a shame that, because we sometimes shy away from talking fully and frankly about immigration, such issues can be conflated into what amounts, often, to a non-sequitur. It is important that we concentrate on the policies that the Government are introducing and those that we need to go further and introduce.
My own background is one of the big drivers for me when I think about immigration. As many Members know, my father was born in Rangoon in Burma. My grandfather worked as a port commissioner and was in charge of scuttling the docks in Rangoon before the Japanese came in. During that time, my grandmother and my two aunts were refugees at a camp in India and, by chance, they managed to find my grandfather in a fort in India.
My father came over here when he was 18. He finished his apprenticeship on the Glasgow docks. The docks, either in Rangoon or in Glasgow, gave him the welcoming present of asbestos inhalation, which unfortunately killed him 25 years ago. None the less, when my father came here, he made a real success of himself. He came with no money but with a great education from a Jesuit school in Amritsar. He worked incredibly hard, instilling in me the importance of a good education, and the need for hard work and family, which set me in good stead. When I look at my Burmese family, I see the support network that they have built around them. They do not look to the state to look after their own. My grandmother was a real matriarch and looked after a number of our extended family well into their old age. We can spread those values across the nation and we must herald some of the values that they hold dear.
I mentioned the fact that immigration is good because many of those people do jobs that others simply do not want to do. Of the NHS, 11% is staffed by people from abroad and 26% of NHS doctors are from abroad. The curry industry is an amazing industry that most people like, whether they are British or first-generation immigrants to the country. A lot of people enjoy their curry. I had tandoori chicken, which was served up by the café in Parliament, a little earlier on. It is our national dish. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) has some strong views on that, as do I as Chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the British curry catering industry. I have that role because the curry catering industry is a massive industry for the country, although it is struggling at the moment, partly because of some unintended consequences of our immigration policy, which we will perhaps hear more about later. I mentioned that there are jobs that people do not want to do. We have an ageing population so we need to bring people in. We need skilled people to come in to do those jobs so that we can create the wealth that helps to pay for pensions, freedom passes, our health service and all the services that older, retired people rely on, as we all do.
I will give one example of a migrant entrepreneur. A friend of mine and the Minister—a chap called Atul Pathak—came over here when he was young with very little money. He worked hard day in, day out in Southall on some pretty arduous jobs. Over the past few years he has gone from the ground floor of the hospitality industry to becoming McDonald’s largest franchisee, running 26 restaurants around London and turning over £50 million. He employs 2,000 people and has given 450 of those the opportunity to gain GCSEs in English and maths. He has provided a number of apprenticeships and some of his staff now have degrees in hospitality. He has helped to bring on thousands of people to follow something that was a job through to being a really satisfying career. He is a fantastic example and does a huge amount of charitable work. A lot of entrepreneurs who have come here from other countries come with a slightly different philanthropic view from ours as businesspeople in the United Kingdom. They are far more active in the charity environment. It is really important that we learn those lessons and share them.
I have talked about the fact that immigration is good for culture, which is important, but let me turn for a second to the fact that mass, uncontrolled immigration is bad. There are tensions when too many people come into the country, like the 2.5 million people—twice the population of Birmingham—who came in under the last Labour Government. That provided a big shock to our infrastructure, including to hospital beds, school places and housing, which are all issues that we are now having to tackle. There are various community tensions in certain areas—I mentioned Tower Hamlets and other towns—so we need to control numbers.
I am pleased that the policy of the previous Government, which we are carrying on now, has started to address the issue. It is like turning an ocean liner around: it cannot all be done particularly quickly. None the less, we have been slashing student fraud. We have struck off nearly 900 bogus colleges and made access to welfare and housing tougher, but there is plenty more to do. I am glad that the Immigration Bill will make it far harder for illegal immigrants to work and access public services, and far easier for us to remove people who should not be here.
The one area in which we need to go further is the European Union. The Prime Minister is trying his hardest to renegotiate a number of terms with the EU, especially regarding freedom of movement. My opinion is that we need to leave the EU. That would ultimately give us far more flexibility to control our own borders, which are strong. Bear in mind the fact that we have the channel; there is sea between us and the rest of Europe. There are tensions in the some of the central and eastern European countries, where we hear about border issues every day. We have a sea and a strong border, which we could do something about if we had the policies in place to do so. Leaving the EU would give us more flexibility to control our borders and tackle some of the unintended consequences of immigration from outside the EU. Things such as the curry industry—bringing curry chefs over—might benefit.
In conclusion, I want quickly to talk about refugees because we are in the middle of a full-blown crisis. We do not want to go back to the position of the early 2000s, when all the talk about immigration was of bogus asylum seekers. We need a situation where we can have strong borders, bring in the people we want and also fulfil our moral obligation—we have a rich history in this—of bringing in the refugees who are most in fear of their lives, so that they feel welcome.
We must have a welcoming environment for legal migrants and refugees, and a hostile environment for illegal immigrants. That needs to be distinct so we do not conflate two issues, but it is a difficult situation to turn around. I fully support the Government’s plans for immigration and the Immigration Bill. Now that we have a majority Conservative Government, we can do things that we could not necessarily do under a coalition Government. I look forward to the Minister’s response on how immigration policy will develop over the next couple of years.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on a rather broader contribution than the wording of the petition suggests. I wanted to take part in the debate for two reasons. First, I believe that immigration should be debated and that people’s anxieties and concerns should be heard. If we are not willing to do that, we will create further problems and pressures in society. I received a fair amount of vitriolic abuse for remarks I made in the local press about this petition. I understand that it was picked up by a national newspaper. In those comments to the local press, I expressed some concern about the wording of the petition and about any automatic tendency to debate petitions simply because of numbers. I went so far as to say that I think there is a risk that we could end up legitimising bigotry. Members will not be surprised to hear that that did not go down terribly well, but I draw their attention to the wording of the petition, which begins:
“The UK government need to prevent immigrants from entering the UK immediately! We MUST close all borders, and prevent more immigrants from entering Britain. Foreign citizens are taking all our benefits, costing the government millions! Many of them are trying to change UK into a Muslim country!”
The petition goes on to make the references to graves that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
The hon. Lady is right. I make it clear that I do not consider people who are concerned about immigration, or who object to it, to be bigots, but I have a problem with the petition. Some of the people who contacted me had a legitimate right—they were not constituents, by and large—to say that they did not like what they had read in the press, whether or not it was what I had actually said. I understand that. The vile nature of some of the other people’s comments probably justifies what I said about them—in fact, what I said about them was probably mild compared with what I read from them.
I will pick up on what a couple of people said. A Mr David Harrington, who I understand owns or works for PressLine, a marketing consultancy, extended my criticism to say that I had accused all signatories of being of a racist tendency, which is quite worrying if he runs a marketing consultancy. That may have been what Mr Harrington heard, but never did I say it. The danger of petitions that deliberately set out to pander to people’s fears is that people end up reading things that are not there and hearing things that have never been said.
Mr Harrington, a bit like the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, advised me that it was Labour that had opened the floodgates to mass migration. Members may not be surprised to hear that I do not entirely share that view, but people have legitimate concerns. We all know that there is pressure on some of our services at the moment and that people fear such pressure. There is pressure on health services and on access to school places. Certainly as far as European migration is concerned, I have more faith in the Prime Minister than it appears the hon. Gentleman has, because I do not want to plan to leave the European Union; I want the Prime Minister to succeed in his negotiations. I hope that one of the things the Prime Minister will seriously consider trying to negotiate is a migration fund so that, where we have a significant influx of people into a particular part of the country from Europe, we can draw on it if the influx is putting pressure on our services. That would be a welcome and useful proposal, as has been made clear in my extensive consultations with my constituents on immigration.
There is clearly an issue in relation to the benefits system. The vast majority of immigrants come to work, so we should not be entirely concerned when the petition says that foreigners are “taking all our benefits”, but it is reasonable to ask questions about benefits. For example, most people would recognise that it is absurd that people who do not have children resident in this country are able to claim child benefit. That is a reasonable point. I am not sure that I support the idea of transferable benefits. It is probably also legitimate to say that there should be a reasonable qualifying period for accessing benefits.
The hon. Gentleman drew on the example of curry shops. The balti business is very big in the Birmingham area. The issue is not about whether one should have to bring over a chef from the Indian subcontinent in this day and age. It would be better to put a bit more support and funding into our sixth form colleges and further education colleges so that they are not at risk of collapsing. If we cannot train people as balti chefs and curry chefs in this day and age, there is something badly wrong with our skills training in this country.
I recommend to the hon. Gentleman that, as was Labour policy at the last election—the Chancellor is now keen on some bits of Labour policy—where an employer asks for a visa to bring someone into this country because they argue that they genuinely cannot fill the skills gap, and where it is practical to create an apprenticeship, we should say, “You can have the visa, provided that there is an apprenticeship to train someone from here for the future.” That would be a useful and practical way of addressing that particular problem.
The Government’s targets need a bit of realism. I liked a lot of what the hon. Gentleman was trying to say—he was trying to be fairly balanced—but then I heard him say, “Oh, the last Labour Government let 2.5 million people into the country.” Where has that figure come from? How many of those people are permanent residents of the UK? How many of them does he know anything about? The reality is that that figure has been conjured up for propaganda purposes, just as the Government’s target to reduce immigration is now becoming a straitjacket for the Home Secretary. It would probably be better if the Government were to set out clear principles for the areas of concern on immigration so that people across the country can work together. That would be more fruitful than setting unachievable targets that lead to further disillusionment, which would be a mistake.
Of course, including refugees in the target, thereby confusing refugees with conventional economic migrants, is a dreadful mistake. I hope the Minister, who is responsible for refugees, will take advantage of this debate to tell us a bit more about what is happening with the Syrian refugees. How many orphaned and abandoned children can we reasonably expect to have been resettled in this country come Christmas? An answer to that question would be helpful, and it would also be helpful if he made it clear that he sees a clear distinction between refugees and economic migrants and that he is willing to consider not mixing the two in the numbers.
It is preposterous that this country wants to make it hard for high-value students to come to our universities. I do not know why we should discourage people who pay good money to come to our universities, and who help to subsidise our own students. Such students will not stop going to university; they will just go to Australia, Canada or the United States. The losers will be our universities and research programmes. It is a dreadful mistake to include students in our immigration targets, and the Minister will have no difficulty getting support from the Labour party, and maybe from other Opposition parties, if he were to come clean and make that distinction. Students are not coming here to settle permanently. They are people who come here for a time-limited period and who we actually want to come here.
This petition is misleading in a number of ways. It ignores the fact that the number of permanent visas being awarded is currently down by about 15%; it ignores the fact that many of our most welcome immigrants come on fixed five-year work permits; and it does not take account of what they come to do or where they come from. We are talking about doctors, nurses, scientists, social care workers, digital engineers—the very people the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam wants to come here to help, support and invigorate businesses, and to start businesses—and they are coming from places such as India, Australia, the USA, the Philippines, Canada and New Zealand. They are the main countries that we are taking immigrants from at present, which is hardly the picture conjured up by this particular petition.
Of course, the petition also ignores what the impact would be on our agriculture and hospitality sectors, for example, if we were to end immigration immediately. The effect would be to close down those sectors. I do not know whether the person responsible for originating this petition thought about the implications of that, or whether the 190,000 or so people who were so keen to sign it have considered that, but I understand that closing our borders would mean that it would be quite difficult to leave the country as well as to enter it. As I have said, I have no problem with discussing and debating immigration. There are immigration issues that we should tackle. There are some where we could find quite a bit of cross-party consensus. However, I for one have no desire to have to go around telling my constituents, “I’m sorry. You’re not going on holiday after all this year, because we have decided to support a petition that says we are going to close our borders.” I do not think that things have got quite that bad in the UK.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue. There is a persuasive argument, I say to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, to consider whether we should issue further guidelines on the wording of petitions. That might be helpful. That is no criticism of the hon. Gentleman or his Committee but there may be times when the current e-petition situation has unintended consequences.
Is it not reasonable to ask that we be given a bit more information about the person originating the petition? It is probably fair to know who they are, where they live, whether they are a registered British voter, for example, whether they have any party political association or any history in relation to a particular subject. It would not be unreasonable to know that. The idea of the e-petition system, of course, was to give a voice to the public and to ensure that we in this place did not ignore issues that matter.
I will quickly answer that point. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Petitions Committee is a new Committee and we are developing and looking at reviewing our processes as we go through. This is the third debate that has arisen from an e-petition and we will always continue to review the system. We certainly know the people who are signing the petition, because we are in contact with them and informing them about the result of their signing the petition, whether it is just a Government response, whether we will have a debate such as this one or whether there will be some other action.
If we have a petition signed by a significant number of, presumably, genuine people that is based on utterly untrue statements, would it not be better to bring the petition in here and to allow the Government to tackle it head-on and say, “This petition is based on untrue statements”, rather than being seen to be stifling debate and not allowing it to be spoken about at all, because that would just allow untrue statements to gain currency?
I am grateful for that remark. In asking for stronger guidelines, I think we are asking for something similar. I acknowledge that the Petitions Committee is new and that we have started a process that will take time to settle down. However, if the abuse of it is such that we spend all our time discussing things that are nonsensical, untrue or misleading, that is not what anyone had in mind when the system started.
I am glad that we have had the opportunity to debate immigration. I really take issue with this petition. Its wording will not advance many of the arguments a great deal. At least we have the opportunity here to debate it. I hope that the Petitions Committee can consider ways in which it may be possible to tighten up the e-petitions system.
I say to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who it is a delight to follow, that I agree with a lot of what he said; I would wear the vitriol that he has experienced with pride. I hope I will not upset him too much with some of the comments I might make about the previous Labour Government.
I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh and as president of the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh—obviously, I have quite an interest in Bangladesh.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman read out the wording of the petition. For anyone who has not read it, I should say that it contains a lot of exclamation marks; in my view, that creates a rather shouty tone. Like many hon. Members here today, during the election period I listened to people expressing concern that we have lost control of our borders. I heard from residents who said they were exasperated that we, as British citizens, could not fully control who came into our country, partly because of the right of EU nationals to travel freely to this country; and from residents who were also angry about illegal immigration—for example, those who break into our country on the back of lorries and who slip into a murky world of criminality and the black economy.
In this uncertain world, we as a country should be able to know who is coming across our borders and for what purpose. Illegal immigration and people traffickers do a disservice to all legal migrants and help fuel sentiments such as those expressed in this petition.
I want to regain strong control over immigration and I share the sentiment of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who opened this debate: I am hugely in favour of the promised referendum on our membership of the EU. It is time we had the discussion and the debate. I will be campaigning to leave the EU. We will consider that issue in the next few months.
How can we hope to control our UK immigration numbers when 42% of our immigrants can walk straight in from the EU, regardless of family ties or skill set? We will listen to the debate on that issue as the months go by. Freedom of movement and of residence for people in the EU was established by the Maastricht treaty in 1992. Now, free movement has a much broader meaning than in the original wording of the treaty of Rome, which talked more about “workers” than about “persons”. The four pillars of the EU—free movement of goods, capital, services and people—seem to be non-negotiable. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is trying to negotiate them, but the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said in January this year that regarding
“the end of the free circulation of workers, there can be no debate, dialogue or compromise. We can fight against abuses, but the EU won’t change the treaties to satisfy the whim of certain politicians.”
There is the rub: as long as Britain is a member of the EU, the EU will not countenance meaningful change that would mean Britain has the policy freedom to control its borders as it sees fit.
This petition asserts that immigrants are taking “all our benefits”, which is a highly alarmist statement. I share the view of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, who spoke before me, that there are areas that we need to look at. Under EU laws, there are areas we need to tighten up on, particularly the highly contentious area of child benefit. We have all talked about that issue; there are cross-party concerns about it. It is worth noting that the figures for 2013 showed that £31 million of British taxpayers’ money was sent abroad as child benefit to other European countries, and that two thirds of that money was sent to Poland.
The EU will fight to defend people’s ability to nominate the country in which they wish to claim their child benefit. However, the Prime Minister believes that it cannot be right to send benefits abroad to children who have never lived in this country and who may, for all we know, not even exist. It is no surprise that a Polish worker would prefer to nominate to receive UK child benefit when it is four times the amount that could be awarded in Poland. Yes, we are welcome to go to Poland and to make a similar claim over there, but it is highly unlikely that we would.
However, despite wanting to tackle the syphoning-off of British taxpayers’ money to Europe, I profoundly disagree with the wording of this petition. It conflates immigration pressures and personal faith. I want a sensible immigration policy that is creed and colour-blind; that welcomes workers to fill vacancies in this country that need filling; that welcomes students to enrich and support our top universities—on that I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak; that respects familial ties and, importantly, our Commonwealth connections; and that does not discriminate against an individual because of his or her personal faith, because to do otherwise would be to go down a hugely dangerous road. Surely the holocaust, which happened in the not-too-distant past, should have taught us a lesson about discrimination on the grounds of faith, which this petition seems to advocate.
In August, the latest net immigration figures were 312,000. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam remarked in his well-balanced comments, 50% of respondents in an Ipsos MORI poll for The Economist said that immigration was the biggest challenge this country faced. Not only was that the highest such percentage ever recorded, but it surpassed the figures for the economy and the NHS. There is no dispute, therefore, that we need to talk about immigration, but how we talk about it is important. As elected representatives we must discuss the matter, but this petition is not the answer.
The petition currently has 199,000 signatories, and I am pleased to say that only 189 of them are from St Albans—0.25% of its electorate. In contrast, more than 500 of my constituents wrote to me about banning foxhunting, so supporting the petition is not high on the St Albans agenda. My constituency has an approximately 10% ethnic minority make-up; the largest black and minority ethnic community is the Bangladeshi one, which at 2,500 represents 2.5% of the population. Christian denominations make up 57%, at 55,951 individuals, and the Muslim denomination is 4,653, which is 4.8%. When I am at our war memorial on 8 November, I will expect to see, as usual, religious leaders from my churches, synagogues and mosques all reading passages and prayers from their sacred texts.
In St Albans we welcome prayers for peace, and we recognise that Muslim soldiers too have fought alongside their brothers from all faiths in the defence of our country. When someone criticised the fact that excerpts were read by the leading imam from one of our mosques, I wrote back and said exactly that—that they should bear in mind that these people support our country regardless of, or because of, their faith, and we should not discriminate. More than 400,000 Muslims alone fought in the first world war on behalf of this country.
I do not believe that faith can be forced. I profess a Christian faith, and I have friends who share other faiths and friends who have no faith, including my husband—he has no faith at all. I do not believe, as the petition asserts, that our faith, however personal, is threatened by Muslims, nor do I accept that Muslims are trying to change the faith of this country. The fact that Muslim families have been shown to have a higher number of children and may bring them up in the faith might mean an increase in the number of people who profess that faith, but it might not. I do not think, however, that someone can rob you of your faith. If a person’s faith comes from within it will not be threatened by another person’s faith, only by another person’s intolerance or oppression of that faith.
In many countries, religious minorities face oppression and we must speak out against that. We should not be fearful or foster or import intolerance into our country. One of this country’s pillars of strength is that each man and woman has the ability freely to express their own faith, and I want nothing to do with any petition that suggests otherwise.
I do not dispute that we need a full and frank discussion about how we manage our immigration levels, but I do dispute why reasonable people would want to associate themselves with an ill-informed petition. What provokes nearly 200,000 people to agree with the aggressive, shouty and unpleasant sentiments expressed in the petition? I am sorry—this is the point where I might upset the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak—but a large part of the fault can be traced back to the previous Labour Government’s failure to see the true impact of EU migration.
In 1997, net immigration to the UK was 48,000 and a 2003 Government report projected that additional future net migration would average between 5,000 and 13,000 a year. In one year alone—between 2003 and 2004, when the accession countries joined the EU—net migration to the UK jumped from 185,000 to 268,000. Net migration has been well over 200,000 per year since, with one exception: when it dropped to 177,000 in 2012.
On a minor point, does the hon. Lady accept that it was the recognition of that error with the original accession countries that led to the transitional controls that the same Government imposed for the next round of countries? That error was not ignored.
I accept that it was not ignored. The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next comments. The modelling was based on the equal access of member states to the labour market, but other states had imposed transitional controls at that time and the UK and Ireland had, unfortunately, not. We learnt that hard lesson.
A former speechwriter for Labour, Mr Nether, wrote in 2009 that
“mass immigration was the way that the Government was going to make the UK truly multicultural.”
He went on to say that he remembered
“coming away from some discussions with the clear sense that the policy was intended—even if this wasn’t its main purpose—to rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date.”
That is an incredibly unhelpful statement, but if Mr Nether was correct it is no wonder petitions such as this have found favour in communities that might feel duped and that we are not facing the ongoing effects of mass uncontrolled migration.
In response to local authority and community concerns, mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, the Communities and Local Government Committee looked into the matter. I served on the Committee in 2008, and we produced a report. At the time, the Committee was Labour dominated—obviously—and it also had a Labour Chair, Phyllis Starkey. It is worth noting the report’s findings. We learned lessons, and we have to learn lessons now. The report’s summary states:
“There is significant public anxiety about migration, some of which arises from practical concerns about its effect on local communities.”
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak referred to that. It continues:
“On our visits we heard from settled residents”—
some of those settled residents were second and third generation from other countries—
“about many such concerns, including the limited English of new arrivals; the problems associated with Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs)…a perceived increase in anti-social behaviour; and pressures on public services. The practical concerns of settled residents about migration need to be addressed by central and local government for cohesion to be improved, and cannot simply be dismissed as expressions of racist or xenophobic sentiments.
Recent migration has placed pressures on local public services in areas that have experienced rapid inward migration, including pressures on schools, translation services, social care, English language teaching, policing and the NHS. These pressures are currently left unfunded by Government, because resource allocations are being made on the basis of flawed population data. Leaving local services with inadequate funding to cope with added pressures from migration is not only detrimental to the service provided to local communities; increased competition between groups for access to limited public resources can also negatively affect community cohesion.”
That happened, and I believe that the petition has come out of it. I think that the petition is wrong in its sentiments and language, but we cannot dispute those findings. We need to face into the situation—all of us. It will take a long time to turn it around.
In an effort to row back from that situation, the points-based immigration system was introduced. Our Government, elected on a mandate of trying to control immigration, say the same. We have, however, to be honest, in this Chamber and in this Parliament: we can control only outside-EU immigration. We are unable to control EU migration, so other areas must be particularly hit, including former Commonwealth countries. The bar is set extremely high, and it has an unfair and disproportionate effect on certain communities and industries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned the curry industry. What he said was absolutely right, but the Chinese food industry is affected as well. The curry industry is worth £4 billion and employs 100,000 people across many of our constituencies. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak mentioned training up people. Yes, we can do that, but it seems rather perverse that a poor Polish immigrant can walk into this country and take up any vacancy they find in any industry, including the hospitality industry or a curry restaurant, even though they might not have the relevant skills, while a poor skilled Bangladeshi chef is not able to that because the bar is set so high.
My hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam, for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) and for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and I returned two weeks ago from visiting a social action project in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a very poor country and it will be enormously difficult for its people to jump the bar to get in and take up vacancies. Someone from the EU can walk in and, hopefully, get a job in any restaurant by virtue of their EU membership.
In response to public concern, we have made it our mandate to cut immigration to tens of thousands, but my own concern is that certain countries are discriminated against. People from those countries have families here and other ties to the UK. We should not just tinker with the margins of the figures by hitting only non-EU countries. We need to look at immigration as a whole and ask ourselves what we can, and cannot, realistically control.
I want to regain control of our borders so that the UK once again says welcome and gives refuge and asylum to those it wishes to come and shows the door to illegal immigrants. Yes, we need controlled immigration. Yes, we need a reasonable debate. However, we do not need nasty, small-minded xenophobia, which wording such as that in the petition encourages and feeds. The petition and its wording have got it wrong on so many levels. After we have considered it today, I suggest that we consign it to the dustbin, where it belongs.
I want a debate on immigration. I do not want a shouty, nasty, ill-informed petition that means we are then discussing whether people are trying to turn us into Muslims or grab our jobs or whether to stop this, that and the other. We need to say why we believe in controlled immigration and explain how we can control it, recognising that we have control over only small amount. That leads to the big debate, which I look forward to having over the next few months, on whether we should throw the whole thing up in the air and say, “Do we want to be able to control our borders?” If being a member of the EU means that we cannot, that is part of the robust debate we should be having. I am pleased to have had the chance to put those comments on the record. I look forward to the vitriol, which I will wear with pride.
This is one of those occasions when I am pleased to get the chance to speak but wish it was in significantly different circumstances. I agree that we need to have a rational debate about immigration, but it is impossible to have one based on the petition submitted to us. It is perfectly in order for anyone to ask for an immediate end to immigration and all borders to be closed immediately, as the petition does—although, as has been pointed out, a border cannot be closed only one way; immigration can only be stopped in both directions—but the rest of the petition is a series of statements, most of which are demonstrably untrue. They are inflammatory, xenophobic, Islamophobic and just about every kind of phobic that someone would care to avoid having to be involved in, and that is not how we should conduct a debate about immigration.
The debate on immigration has descended to that level because the kind of nonsense in the petition has been around for a long time and none of the major UK parties before we became a major UK party was prepared to deal with that in the way that they should, which is to stand up to it and tackle it head on, rather than allow it to become an argument about who can be tougher on immigration. I am bitterly disappointed that the Conservative party, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats did not take the chance to stand up and say, “This demonisation of foreigners, immigrants and people because of their religion or creed is utterly wrong. It is un-British for those who believe that being British is a great thing to want to hold on to.” As a Christian, I believe that the attitudes shown in the petition are fundamentally un-Christian. I know for a fact from speaking to a great many friends who are followers of Islam that those narrow-minded, xenophobic ideas run counter to the philosophy and truth of Islam.
I know that one thing the Conservative party and the Scottish National party have in common is the desire to kick the Labour party, but does the hon. Gentleman not see any slight contradiction between on the one hand being accused of opening the floodgates and letting 2.5 million flow into the country and on the other being accused of demonising immigrants? Does he not think there may be a contradiction there?
I think the contradiction is between the hon. Gentleman’s comments and the fundraising mugs that his party was selling during the election with the slogan, “Controls on immigration.” As soon as one starts to play the anti-immigration line in the context of anti-immigration political parties—one such political party has been reduced to one Member in the House of Commons—we have lost the chance to have a proper debate about a serious issue that concerns a lot of people.
Belatedly, I need to declare an interest. In fact, we all need to declare an interest, because one day not that long ago, we were all immigrants. This place operates on alien immigrant principles that were introduced by a bunch of illegal immigrants called the Normans. If we all go back far enough—some of us do not have to go back far at all—we are all descended from immigrants. My great-grandparents were immigrants. My father-in-law is an immigrant. My dear departed godmother, Auntie Mary, was an immigrant. I have a brother and a sister who are immigrants—not a half-brother and half-sister or step-brother and step-sister. We have the same mum and dad. We were born a few miles apart, because a new hospital had been built by the time they came along.
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of the report, “Community Cohesion and Migration”—in fact, I suggest he reads it—that the Communities and Local Government Committee produced. It is the pace of immigration that concerns a lot of communities. Controlled immigration, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) was saying, is what most communities say they want. They are not anti-immigrant; they want control.
I am sorry if I am not making the point clearly enough, but by conducting the debate on the terms of UKIP and those even more extreme than UKIP, it allows people like the gentleman who started the petition to believe that they are in the ascendancy and on the front foot. I do not know anybody—it is certainly not the policy of the SNP—who thinks there should be utterly open, uncontrolled immigration into Scotland, and I would not imagine that any UK parties would want the same for England. One of the big problems is how the controls are defined. For example, the salary control prevents qualified nurses from getting into the country. How ridiculous is that? It has been pointed out that the controls that were set up supposedly to stop bogus students coming in to go to bogus universities seriously affected the financial viability of some of our great and most ancient seats of learning.
To finish the comments I was making on my links to immigration, my Auntie Mary was born in Scotland. She was an immigrant. My wee brother and wee sister were born in Scotland, and they are immigrants, because one lives in Ireland and one lives in Germany. Why is it that, as part of the demonisation process that is so built in that we do not even recognise it, when other people come here they are immigrants, but when we go there we insist on becoming expats? Some of the biggest and most concentrated immigrant communities that can be found anywhere are of British immigrants in parts of southern Spain, Portugal and France. If we allow the debate to be carried out in the terms expressed in the petition, we are inviting the far right and other countries to demonise and discriminate against British citizens in exactly the same way as some people would want us to discriminate against the citizens of other countries.
Among the other great disservices of the past few weeks is what I can only assume is a deliberate strategy of conflating the humanitarian refugee crisis with controls or lack of controls over immigration. Those are two completely different issues. We are not required to take Syrian refugees or refugees from anywhere else because of our membership of the EU. That is not affected by our signing up or not signing up to Schengen or anything else. A fundamental requirement of international law is that we give proper succour to refugees if they come in fear for their lives. We allowed the Home Secretary to make a statement about the Syrian refugee crisis headed, “Immigration”, which was an utterly shocking piece of bad naming, misrepresenting the true situation in the Mediterranean. Where people want to come here because they are in fear for their lives, that is not immigration. I fully agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that it is utterly and totally wrong to include hopefully short-term or temporary succour to refugees in an immigration figure.
Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that the Government’s approach to the Syrian refugee crisis, which concentrates our help on the camps and taking people from there, directly helps refugees? Taking more people who are landing on these shores by crossing the Mediterranean risks giving support to human traffickers, who are bringing economic migrants as well as refugees.
I had not intended to get into a debate about refugees, because the debate is not about refugees—that is what I am trying to say—but the direction I approach the matter from is that 4.5 million people have fled Syria because they would have died had they stayed. The United Kingdom takes 20,000 people. Who do we morally think we can tell to take the other 4,480,000? There are not places roundabout Syria that are stable enough to take those kind of numbers. That is why I welcome the Government’s moves so far. I am on the side of the bishops. The Government have not gone nearly far enough, but let me repeat: the petition should not be allowed to be about refugees. This is about immigration, and the two have got to be kept utterly and completely separate.
I was as shocked and offended as anyone when I saw footage a few years ago of people desecrating war graves. The desecration of any grave or any site of religious or spiritual significance is a terrible thing. What was done in the footage was done to create disharmony and conflict and to set communities against one another. That is why the militants did it. As has been pointed out, the petitioner was incorrect in stating that British war graves were desecrated. There were some British war graves and there were war graves of other nationalities who fought alongside Britain when Britain most needed them. They gave their lives in the service of the values that so many of their countries share with the nations represented in this hall today. A lot of them died in the uniforms of countries from which citizens would not be allowed to come if the petitioner got his way and if some of the reforms that the Government have talked about were implemented.
Let us not forget that, whether we talk about immigration or foreigners who have no intention of coming here even temporarily, we are talking about people whose countries suffered desperately in the fight against Nazism and about people who have come to settle in the UK whose fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought, risked their lives and sometimes lost their lives fighting for exactly the same values that our people did. It is wrong to start driving barriers between people based on the country they were born in, on the language that they speak, on the colour of their skin, on the god they choose to worship, on the way in which they choose to worship their god, or on their belief that there may not be a god at all. To discriminate against people on any of those grounds is rightly unlawful. More importantly, it is indefensibly immoral. There are no circumstances in which it is acceptable to discriminate on such grounds.
Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, I have been on the receiving end of some very unpleasant emails from my constituents. I have had about 100 emails asking for an anti-immigration debate since I got elected this year and I think 99 of them have come from the same place. I got hate mail almost handed over to the police some years ago. I wrote a letter to one of our local papers in response to what I saw as xenophobic comments about immigration and refugees. I pointed out that in a few weeks’ time some of us would celebrate our patron saint. I was not referring to St Andrew, who comes a couple of weeks later. Being an adoptive Fifer, I am proud of the connection that we have with St Margaret.
I can understand and I share a lot of the feelings of those who earlier this year celebrated the achievements of the present monarch, and I can understand why English people celebrate the incredible achievements of the previous Elizabeth, who also reigned for a long time, but I believe the finest monarch that we had in our days of independent monarchy was Margaret, who is now a patron saint. She came to Scotland as a refugee. She did not choose to come to Scotland. She came as a refugee and became by far our best loved monarch of all times, certainly in the pre-Union days. When I have commented on that before, I have had hate mail accusing me of being a traitor to my country and of being a traitor to my cause. I made those comments because we just never know what outstanding acts of good can come from somebody who has come here in the most desperate of circumstances. We never know what exceptional contribution someone who comes here as an immigrant may or may not make, just as we can never know who the next great migrant emigrating from these shores might be and what good they might do in other countries.
In exactly the same way as closing down all international trade would harm us all, closing down all immigration would be a desperately sad step to take. In practice, that is what the petitioner is asking for. We cannot close Britain’s borders to anybody trying to come in without borders going up against anyone trying to go from Britain to other countries.
A couple of people have asked who the petitioner was. They have been identified. In fact, they were interviewed by a news website not far from the constituency of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak. It was somebody in Walsall. They are not a registered voter because, ironically, at the time the petition was started the young gentleman was only 17. Although some of us would have been happy to allow them to express their views through the ballot box, a majority of people in here would not have allowed them to do so. Perhaps he had to set up the petition because other people would not allow him a vote. When he was asked where he got the information in his petition, he said he got it off the internet, so perhaps that is an issue we need to look at.
I would be against rejecting a petition that appeared to have been supported by a substantial number of people simply because we found it offensive or we thought it was wrong. If people bring forward ideas based on falsehoods and on facts that are simply not accurate, the way to deal with it is to get the inaccuracies out into the open and to expose them for what they are. So when we get the response from the Minister—spokespersons tend to read through what the Government’s record is and what their future plans are—I hope the Government will take the chance to say unequivocally that the request that has been made in the petition is unacceptable, because the comments, arguments and statements of fact on which the request is made are utterly and completely untrue and unjustifiable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy.
The issue of immigration has been debated in Parliament many times. It feels as though hardly a day has gone by since the summer recess when we have not debated immigration or the refugee situation at least once, but I hope to add my voice to the ongoing debate. As has been pointed out, the debate has come about as a result of almost 200,000 people putting their signatures to the online petition. That is a clear demonstration that the subject continues to be a matter of significance and concern to the British people. It saddens me that such debates often polarise opinion and people take extreme and opposing views. The petition calls for the end of immigration and the closing of our borders.
Although we might not agree with the wording or even the sentiments contained in the petition, it is a clear sign of the deep frustration and, at times, anger that many people continue to feel about the issue. Much of that comes from the perceived lack of progress in addressing the matter. I am sure we would all agree that the issue of immigration is far more complex than how it is presented in the petition. I am also sure that, as politicians and parliamentarians, we will not be fulfilling our duty to the British public if we do not continue to address the matter. That is why I welcome the debate. It is absolutely right that, in response to the petition, we debate some of the issues raised and address the inaccuracies it contains.
I represent the constituency of St Austell and Newquay in mid-Cornwall. Cornwall is not renowned for its ethnic diversity or its multiculturalism. Indeed, there are people in Cornwall who might view people from Devon as immigrants. We do not have many permanent migrants resident in Cornwall, yet all my fellow Cornish MPs would confirm that, while we were knocking on doors in the run-up to the election, immigration remained one of the most regularly raised issues that people were concerned about. There is clearly a perception that many of the challenges that our nation faces are a direct result of immigration. It is certainly true that in some communities the number of migrants who have moved in has had a significant and disproportionate impact. The danger as I see it is that we will become polarised as either for or against immigration. In part, I support both views, because we need managed immigration—a term I prefer to “controlled immigration”. We need to be able to manage immigration to our country in a way that is right and beneficial to our country.
The open-door policy of the last Labour Government has already been mentioned; I believe that, coupled with unlimited migration from inside the EU, it is largely responsible for many of people’s concerns today. There is no doubt in my mind that, historically, immigration has brought many benefits to this country. People have come here and contributed to our economy, our culture and our wider society—from the thousands of people who now work in our NHS and other public services, and the many business people who have come here to start a business and now provide significant employment, to those who have contributed to our national arts, media and sports.
In Cornwall, we can have anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 migrant workers—or even more—at any one time. Those people supply a vital workforce to many of our core Cornish sectors—agriculture, food processing, hospitality and tourism—as well as health and care workers. It is simple: without those workers, Cornwall would grind to a halt. They are vital for Cornwall to function. Equally, the number of migrants who have moved into some communities and the speed of migration have created significant challenges and tensions. There are difficulties with integration when so many people move so quickly into a community. There is an impact on some schools when many children do not speak English as a first language. There can be issues of segregation when people try to keep themselves separate. All those things can create huge challenges. We have to face the fact that a situation has been created in which some people no longer feel at home in the place where they were born and raised. The number of immigrants has also placed a burden on some public services.
We have seen thousands of people move from other parts of the country to live in Cornwall. When I speak to them, they openly state that one reason they moved was the negative impact of immigration where they previously lived. They choose to move to Cornwall because they see it as somewhere with low immigration. Some will argue that that is a warped view of reality; quite possibly it is, but no matter how true or untrue we think such people’s perception is, we owe it to them not to ignore but to address their concerns. As politicians, we ignore them at our peril.
The challenge is how we embrace the positives that immigration can bring while managing the negatives. As the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, it is vital that we keep the concepts of economic migration and of refugees as two separate issues in our minds and, as much as possible, in the mind of the British people. One of the sad consequences of the debate in recent months has been the blurring of the line between immigrants and refugees. Genuine refugees deserve all the compassion, help and support that we are able to provide as a country. That needs to be real help that is carefully considered and planned. As the Prime Minister said, we need to respond with our heads as well as our hearts. It is right that we continue to support the refugee camps and provide help there, and that we bring the right number of refugees to this country so that we can genuinely help and support them.
When it comes to migrants, the vast majority of whom are economic, we simply need to be able to take control and manage who can to come into the country. We need to allow, and indeed welcome, those who will meet the needs of the country, contribute to our economy and society, and embrace our nation, values, heritage and culture. I wholeheartedly support what the Government have been doing to deal with the issues, but although much has been done, much more must be done to address non-EU migration.
We all know that some parts of the country experience significant problems that are at least partly the result of EU migration. We simply cannot continue to allow the number of EU migrants to this country that we have had in recent years. We understand that the number is largely a direct result of the fact that our economy is growing far quicker than the economies of all other EU countries.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we are always going to need and rely on immigration until we address the bigger issue: the gap in our skills market? Until we do so, we will not be able to cut back on immigration. Addressing the skills gap is the way to grow the economy.
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. The immigration we need is that which will continue to grow our economy and fill the skills gaps. We need to welcome those who will come and meet those needs. Nevertheless, it is clear that unmanaged immigration from inside the EU is partly responsible for keeping wages and productivity low and for taking jobs from young people. We must stand up to and address that. If we do not, we will continue to face the challenge of low productivity and a limited future for some young people.
It is clear that immigration is going to be a key issue in the debate on the upcoming EU referendum, because it worries many people who live here. If the EU wants us to stay in, it needs to give some ground and allow the UK to manage its borders better. If it does not, it should not be surprised if the British people vote to leave the EU.
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, Mr Walker, and welcome the public engagement that has caused it to be held. It is right that we discuss matters on which significant numbers of constituents have expressed concerns to the House, and that we have the opportunity to allay the concerns and fears that have clearly manifested themselves in the language used in the petition.
The debate on immigration is not new to me. Of course, by the time of the 2015 general election, it was well known to us all, but in 2008 I was selected to stand in North East Derbyshire, which was regarded as a rock-solid Labour former mining seat. In 2015, I stood in Bexhill and Battle and was fortunate enough to be elected. Both constituencies displayed a lot of concern about immigration, which is interesting because both have a lower exposure to immigration in terms of numbers of constituents. Perhaps that lack of exposure in certain parts manifests itself in concern, whereas in other constituencies, where immigration numbers are higher, the constituents are more comfortable. I would say that it is because they can see the many benefits to immigration.
Although I maintain that the language of the petition is perhaps on the harsh side, I acknowledge that many of our constituents have entirely legitimate concerns about immigration, including control, security and access to infrastructure. Those need to be answered and our constituents need to be reassured. Therefore, as we debate our need for more housing and more essential public services, such as health and education, and how we transport our constituents to work and across the country, we must consider the population size of the UK, which, as matters stand, is predicted to grow 25% by 2060.
In touching on those issues, I want to talk about the concerns raised directly by the petition and some underlying issues. First, I want to address the concept that foreign citizens are taking all our benefits. Over the years, there has been much debate about whether immigrants put more into the Exchequer than they take out in welfare and benefits. Like anything, that depends on how the data are interpreted. Two academics from University College London compiled a report on immigration between 1995 and 2011. On the one hand, the report concluded that EU immigrants put £20 billion more into the country than they took out in benefits, and non-EU immigrants put in £5 billion more than they took out. However, it also concluded that immigration would cost £120 billion. The difference between those conclusions is down to the fact that we clearly do not know how much immigration will cost and how much it will benefit us.
When looking at the cost of immigration, one tends to look at a group of individuals who have come to this country without having been educated here, and therefore have not put the burden of education on the state. There may also be an expectation that they will not burden the Exchequer with other large costs, including the cost of health, as they get older, and of pensions. There is an assumption, however, that immigrants will return to the countries from whence they came, but of course we do not know that they will do that. It is right to look again at this issue and keep asking ourselves whether the costs to the economy can be maintained.
However, I do not subscribe to the suggestion that benefits are the driver for immigration. I do not buy the idea that people are willing to risk life and limb and leave a lot of their family behind in another country purely to survive in this country on what is a relatively small amount of money when housing and other provisions are taken into account. I do not believe that at all. I am more inclined to believe that the type of person who has that get up and go and determination is the type of person who will set up their own business, contribute, work incredibly hard, enrich our country and be a success. However, I agree that anyone coming to this country must do so to work, study or shelter from persecution.
Foreign citizens are sometimes portrayed as taking our jobs. First, no one is entitled to a job; jobs have to be earned. When I speak to my constituent business owners—I have a considerable number of fruit farmers, for example, in my constituency—they say that they tend to hire migrant labour because they feel that they do not get the same productivity and work ethic in our native labour market. That is not universally the case, but it seems to be the perception. We have to help local people—young people, in particular—to break that perception and get jobs. An issue is the fact that businesses tend to hire from abroad, rather than from within, which is regrettable.
However, we know that UK productivity needs to increase. Since I was elected, there have been a number of debates in Parliament on the fact that our productivity numbers are not high enough. I would contend that without immigration our productivity would be poorer.
I agree. It should not be British jobs for British workers, but jobs for all workers. I was brought up on the idea that people have to compete and work hard. Somebody who is looking to employ would expect that from a worker, and they would look at it before looking at their nationality. None the less, I want to support our native employment market. I encourage those people to take a leaf out of the book of some of those who come from abroad with nothing and work incredibly hard. That is very important.
I want to touch on the benefits of migration to some of our essential public services, and our reliance on immigrant numbers as a result. It would be difficult to staff our hospitals, in which 11% of all staff and 26% of doctors are non-British. We hugely rely on those individuals to keep us healthy and well. From a local perspective, 28% of my constituents are aged over 65—that is a figure to celebrate, because the national average is nearer 17%—but it makes care home provision in my constituency an enormous challenge, and without immigration those care homes would be either incredibly expensive or understaffed.
The key is to get the balance right. There has been some talk about what occurred before 2010, but if we are to have an honest conversation about immigration we must look at the things we have done well and the things that have not worked out well. I believe that, before 2010, the Government badly underestimated the net migration from the newly acceded countries. The Labour Government thought that between 5,000 and 13,000 people would move from Poland and the newly acceded eastern European countries to the UK from 2004. The number of migrants who arrived was not their maximum figure of 13,000, but 1 million. Almost every EU nation, with the exception of Ireland and Sweden, prevented migrants from coming over for seven years. The British public have such a dismissive view of immigration policies and lack trust because we got our predictions of the numbers spectacularly wrong. It is important that we win back the trust of the British people so we can reassure them that we have the correct boundaries for immigration. I am pleased that the Government I support have required individuals from newly acceded countries to wait the full seven years before they can benefit from the same rights as EU workers.
The final issue I want to touch on is culture. It is often said that we need to preserve our culture, or that our culture is under threat. In my view, cultures evolve. Our culture has certainly been enriched over the centuries by global trade and our desire to look beyond our own window, and I would support that. Perhaps it is fair to add that the most culturally homogenous nation on earth is North Korea, which is hardly a great example of cultural enrichment. However, we must also preserve our values of freedom of speech, equality and respect for the rights of others. We must jealously guard those rights from all those who seek to erode them. That must be understood by anyone seeking to join our country—and, indeed, anybody already within our country.
Finally, on the ethics of immigration, I struggle with the fact that our health system is hugely reliant on immigrants, many of whom come from incredibly poor countries where people do not have the same access to hospital provision, drugs and care that we do. In taking people from such countries, I ask myself whether we are denying much more vulnerable people the ability to be cared for. We should continue to ask such questions. On Syria, which it is important to consider in this debate, is it right that people who have risked drowning are instantly allowed into this country? By allowing them to settle in this country, are we encouraging others to take even greater risks? That is of huge concern to me, which is why I support the Government’s stance that, rather than encouraging and incentivising people to risk their lives in perilous journeys, we seek to look after people in the camps or to take vulnerable people from those camps. In so doing—this is part of the ethical challenge—we keep as many people close to Syria as possible, so that the fittest and most able, who might otherwise never return to look after their own country and become future leaders, are nearby when they are able to return.
I welcome the benefits of immigration, but it is right that we discuss the public’s concerns openly. I certainly do not agree with the concerns as stated in this particular petition, but such concerns exist and it is right that the public keep us on our toes. We should not shy away from our responsibilities. The positives of immigration ultimately outweigh any negatives.
I welcome the subject of the e-petition that we are debating this afternoon, even if I do not agree with the wording. My comments are similar to those of my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) in that, if we do not have this conversation, we alienate a significant number of people whose views may become more extreme. However, if we have an honest, open debate with all the facts made clear, we can hope that sensible arguments will win and those with extreme views will be outnumbered. If we dismiss such views completely, we alienate a huge section of our population.
Immigration is the No. 1 issue in my constituency. It was before the election and still is when I knock on doors now, and the reasons are several. My constituency is quite divided. Due to a local skills shortage, those in Lewes town itself feel that we are not taking enough people from outside this country. A separate e-petition was started on 15 August with the opposite view to today’s, calling for the country to take on more migrants, particularly refugees, and a march in support of accepting more refugees is taking place in my constituency a week on Saturday. In the other part of my constituency, along the coastal strip, many residents would agree with the sentiments in today’s e-petition, so views on this topic are divided even within a small area in the south-east of England.
My constituency has low levels of immigration, so it is startling to find people who are concerned about immigration and its effects. Only 7% of my constituents are foreign nationals, compared with a London constituency such as Battersea where the figure is closer to 35%. For my constituents, the issue is often not immigration itself, but rather the fear of immigration. When I talk to people and drill down to find out what they are concerned about, it is the pressure on resources and infrastructure. Housing is at a premium in my constituency, both in terms of availability and affordability. People are worried that an increase of migration into the area will make the situation even worse.
Our road and rail network is also congested. A journey that should take 20 minutes by car or bus often takes an hour or longer simply because of the level of traffic on the roads. Westminster Hall debates have been held on the topic of rail issues along the south coast and on the Brighton main line. People know that those lines cannot take many more passengers. I was talking to a group of elderly people who told me that they were having to wait two weeks for a GP appointment, so the thought of more people living in the constituency is a source of great fear. It does not matter whether people are from outside or inside the European Union or from within the United Kingdom, parts of the south-east are at capacity. Until we address that issue, the fear of immigration will continue.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about the movement of people from within the UK. I know that she used to live in London, which has expanded continually since Dick Whittington was a boy. The population is forecast to rise to nearly 10 million in a few years’ time, which is of particular concern to Londoners. Does she agree that it is important to address that as London expands?
I absolutely agree. I migrated from London to Lewes over 20 years ago, and we are seeing an increase in people moving out but still commuting back into London, but London is definitely expanding. Some parts of the south-east coast are actually referred to as London-by-the-sea.
I speak as the daughter of Irish immigrants who came to this country for a better life, so I am by no means against immigration. I see first-hand the benefits that immigration can bring to local economies. I was a nurse right up until the election and saw the valuable contribution made by workers from other countries. If we stopped immigration and closed our borders tomorrow, the NHS would be brought to its knees and grind to a halt. My constituency is quite rural, featuring several vineyards, and local farmers tell me that the issue is not one of cheap labour. They cannot get people to fill their jobs. It is about workers’ availability and willingness, which is why they are so reliant on migrant workers for essential but seasonal work. Colleagues have quoted such figures already this afternoon, but European immigrants pay more in tax than they ever claim in benefits. It is estimated that such immigrants have contributed some £20 billion to our economy as a whole since 2001.
The concerns are genuine, however, and we should not ignore the many people who have signed this petition even if we disagree with the wording. As colleagues on both sides have said this afternoon, we need to ensure that people understand the difference between refugees and economic migrants, because they are in very different situations and need dealing with differently. We must consider the lack of integration over the past 10 or 15 years. While on a trip with the Women and Equalities Committee only a couple of weeks ago, we heard from various groups of migrants who had settled in places such as Birmingham, Manchester and Oldham that not allowing integration has had a detrimental effect on their communities. Members of Parliament should be doing more to support it.
Lack of space is another issue with which the south-east of England is struggling. We are building as many houses as we physically can as quickly as possible, but the south-east has only so much capacity, which is why I welcome the Chancellor’s support for a northern powerhouse that can take the heat off the south-east by creating jobs in other parts of the country, which would deal with people’s fears about the difficulties of managing our resources.
In conclusion, I am not against immigration, but as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay said we need a managed approach. Immigration has risen dramatically in the past 10 years, completely uncontrolled. We must look at the skills that we need, rather than simply closing the border and not welcoming migrants. We must be clear about what skills we need and how to provide them. I know from working with doctors, for example, that there is already a shortage of doctors but a few years ago we used to welcome them from Australia, China and other parts of the world. Already people cannot get visas and come to this country to work, which is having a negative impact. We must also look at integration, so that people who come here are not setting up a whole new community, but becoming part of an existing one.
I am against closing the borders, so I disagree with the motives of the petition, but I welcome the debate. Unless we have an honest and open debate, we are storing up problems for the future. I will not continue, because most of the points that I wanted to make have been covered by colleagues. The debate has been excellent and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
Unlike just about every other speaker so far in the debate, I do not have an interest to declare in the sense that I am not a migrant and have no immigrant parents or grandparents, but I love and respect the opportunities and possibilities that migration can bring both to the migrants going in and out of the United Kingdom and to the United Kingdom and other countries benefiting from migrant flows.
I agreed with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) when he said that we need a measured immigration debate, and we have had a pretty measured debate today. A lot of important points have been made by hon. Members, which I have noted down, although I might struggle to read my handwriting. I am also not convinced that the petition offers the best platform on which to conduct a debate. In that regard, I share the views of the hon. Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for St Albans (Mrs Main).
Last week we saw a measured debate in Westminster Hall on a topic that everyone would agree was appropriate and that arose from a petition on cannabis. Regardless of Members’ personal views, the petition was set out rationally, could in no way be described as offensive—never mind prejudiced or discriminatory—and dealt with a subject that had not, as far as I am aware, featured heavily in House of Commons business since the election. Taking all those factors into account and the number of signatories to the petition, few people would be critical of the fact that such a debate was held. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, however, I cannot say the same about the petition referred to in today’s motion.
I fully appreciate that the e-petition system is designed to ensure that MPs give consideration to topics that they might otherwise be reluctant to discuss, but, as it happens, immigration is not one such. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) pointed out, we had an immigration debate in Westminster Hall as recently as July and we debated the Immigration Bill extensively last week. A more important point is that we ought to apply some minimum standards to e-petitions. For reference, Scottish Parliament guidance on them includes requirements that petitions should not
“Contain any false statements...Include language that is offensive or inappropriate, for example swear words, insults, sarcasm or other language that could reasonably be considered offensive by a reader.”
Those are reasonable requirements, which the petition we are debating would borderline fail on accuracy and on whether a reasonable person would find the content offensive or inappropriate. The Petitions Committee might want to look again at how best to respond to such petitions—whether we can accept the subject matter that has attracted such high numbers, pick another petition on the same subject or simply hold a debate on immigration.
In any event, we are here, so I will respond briefly to each of the points in the e-petition. It states:
“Foreign citizens are taking all our benefits, costing…millions!”
As the hon. Members for St Albans and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) said, that is not true. The Department for Work and Pensions has set out a lot of data showing that 92.8% of all those receiving benefits were UK nationals when they first registered for a national insurance number, compared with only 2.2% who were EU nationals.
The petition also states that many immigrants
“are trying to change UK into a Muslim country!”
The hon. Member for St Albans spoke eloquently about why it is wrong to conflate the issues of migration and religion. My party would associate ourselves entirely with her comments about the contribution of Muslim citizens to this country. That aside, suffice it to say that among the estimated 8.5 million people living in Great Britain in 2015 who were born abroad, about 4.2 million were Christian, compared with 1.5 million who were Muslim and 1.5 million who had no religion. However, as I said, religion is not an issue that should be conflated with that of migration.
The petition also argues:
“If the Government does not do anything, then Britain may take in 12 million more immigrants by 2060.”
In fairness, one piece of EU modelling showed that to be a possible trend, but it is important to point out that the modelling was of one possible scenario and certainly not a prediction. The speech of, again, the hon. Member for St Albans reminded us that predictions on migration trends can go badly wrong very quickly. In any event, that is clearly not an argument for no immigration; it is one for managed migration, and the true debate is about how we go about achieving that.
Finally, the statement about
“footage of foreigners destroying British soldiers graves, which is a huge disrespect to us”
is absolutely irrelevant to what the petition seeks. As the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam pointed out, that is a reference to the destruction of a cemetery near Benghazi in Libya by an armed militia group. It was hugely disrespectful, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes said, but as the House of Commons Library briefing note puts it:
“There is no suggestion in media reports that any of the militia involved were planning on migrating to the UK.”
There is really nothing to do with anything there.
I wonder whether, on reflection, many of the signatories to the petition will understand that the idea of no immigration is not a helpful one for a whole host of reasons. What if the petitioners themselves or members of their family fall in love and marry foreign nationals? Is the petition really saying that they should not be allowed to live in this country? Should the incredibly talented nurses, doctors and teachers mentioned by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, the ones who support our public services, be turned away? What about the international students who enhance the learning experience of those they study beside and who contribute to our universities intellectually and financially? What about the workers who are keen to take up jobs that we struggle to fill, or those with the skills that we lack and would take years to train? If we lose them, we lose jobs.
None of that is to ignore the challenges that migration can bring. Various hon. Members have referred to them. The answer is to deal with the challenges, such as in housing or public services, with careful strategies. Zero immigration is not a careful strategy, because of the harm rather than any help that it would do to our economy and our public services. Nor, however, is the existing net migration target a careful strategy, and it is not one that many people believe will ever be achieved.
A number of other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, complained about the target including refugees in its total. I agree that having refugees as part of a net migration target is completely inappropriate. Equally, however, it is a mistake to include students, skilled workers or husbands and wives in the net migration target. What sort of Government policy can be thought to be a positive thing if it keeps my wife or partner from coming to this country?
Nothing from the Government so far has addressed how we deal with the challenges that migration brings. It is all about how we stop further levels of migration; it is not about how we deal with the challenges that have already arrived. The only suggestion that we have had so far in fact came from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, which was the migration fund.
As I understand it, a migration fund was set up under the previous Labour Government and lasted for a brief time—a charge on visa applications was redistributed to and used in parts of the country where, perhaps, public services were beginning to struggle and not to cope. Why was that fund abolished within months of the coalition Government taking office? Where are the strategies to deal with the issues raised by Government Members today?
I said in the immigration debate last week that my party acknowledges and is proud of, and prefers to emphasise, the tremendous contribution made by people who chose to make this country their new home. They make contributions to our public services, our economy, our culture and, most importantly to many of our citizens, our family lives.
Healthy population growth is important to Scotland’s economy. Some hon. Members have already mentioned the role that migration can play in tackling demographic challenges, so the Scottish Government’s economic strategy sets out to match average European population growth during 2007 to 2017 with the support of both increased healthy life expectancy and migration.
Migration can be part of the solution to the challenges we face. We will campaign for Government policy that reflects the needs and circumstances of Scotland’s economy and, indeed, those of the whole of the United Kingdom. We want a Government that recognise and are up front about the fact that migration is an important part of our future.
We have about an hour left. In the event that the two remaining Front-Bench Members feel that they need to take all that time, can I ask them to divide it between them? I also remind the Minister that Mr Scully will need two minutes at the end to wrap up.
Thank you, Mr Walker, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I assure you that I do not intend to take more than about 10 or 15 minutes. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for facilitating the debate.
I echo some of the comments made about the petition and urge the Petitions Committee to look again at how petitions are brought forward for debate. I do understand that it is difficult to get the balance right between petitions that we might think more worthy of debate and others. It is worth going back to have another look at the guidelines, but I do not mean that as a criticism for bringing forth today’s debate.
My party and I profoundly disagree with the petition. That will come as no surprise to anyone here—to some extent, it echoes many of the comments already made. May I start by emphasising the huge contribution made by so many people who have come to this country over many years? Without that, the UK would not be the country, or set of countries, that it is. Our economy and our society benefit from the talent and investment of people who come here, including students who come here to study. That cannot and should not be measured solely in financial terms; we must look much more broadly than that.
An example given by the British Medical Association reflects some of the comments made by hon. Members in the debate. In anticipation of the debate, it said:
“Much of the rhetoric about immigration has focused on the pressures that increased immigration has placed on public services including the health service, housing and schools.”
It believes that it is important to acknowledge the contribution made by
“highly skilled migrants, including doctors…in delivering and sustaining public services including the NHS and our universities.”
It draws on the example of international medical graduates—doctors—who have become essential members of the UK’s medical workforce. The NHS is dependent on them to provide a high quality, reliable and safe service to patients. It says that international medical graduates
“have enhanced the UK health system over the years, improving the diversity of the profession to reflect a changing population, and filling shortages in specialties which may otherwise remain empty.”
That is just one example of the contribution made by those who have come to this country over the years.
A number of hon. Members touched on the question of refugees. I appreciate that that is not the core subject matter of the debate, but may I say a few words on that? We need to celebrate our proud tradition of providing refuge to those fleeing persecution in other countries. In the light of the current crisis, we need to work with the UN to support vulnerable refugees, and those from Syria in particular. More needs to be done and we need to tackle all of the issues upstream.
I remind hon. Members that serious proposals were put forward last week by a highly experienced group of judges, ex-judges, lawyers and other experts in the field of refugee law and practice. Their proposals are worthy of serious consideration and we must find time to consider them.
First, the UK should take a fair and proportionate share of refugees from both within and outside the EU. We need to have that debate—we had some of it last week. Secondly, safe and legal routes to asylum need to be established. That goes to the heart of the discussion about whether refugees should be taken from within Europe having already arrived, or beforehand, but the key issue is safe and legal routes. Thirdly, there must be access to fair and thorough procedures to determine eligibility for protection. Those serious proposals have been put on the table by eminent experts in the field who think there should be debate, and I urge that we find time for that.
Although I have profound concerns about and disagree with the motion, I accept that we should debate immigration and the issues that lie behind the petition. That does not mean that those who drafted or supported it are right or that they speak with one voice, but we should not shy away from the questions raised for us to debate. It is therefore good that we have had this debate today.
In many ways the question is about how to get the balance right. We need an immigration system with controls that are properly administered and effective, but, equally importantly, we also need fairness and humanity. We need strong borders. Labour has argued for more staffing on the borders and better training for those staff. We also need fair rules to protect those who are exploited and migrant workers in particular.
I am grateful for that intervention. Labour’s position is that it is more appropriate to have more staff on the borders carrying out proper checks than to impose a burden on landlords to carry out checks later on, as proposed by the Immigration Bill, which will be in Committee from tomorrow morning.
On preventing exploitation of migrant workers, my party and I welcome the establishment of a director of labour market enforcement. There has been a very low number of civil penalties and criminal prosecutions over the years, so hopefully the establishment of that post will change the position considerably.
In terms of fairness and humanity, there are issues worthy of serious consideration: first, ending the indefinite detention of people in the asylum and immigration system; and secondly, ending the detention of pregnant women and victims of sexual abuse or trafficking. There is also the question of removal of support from those whose asylum claims have failed. That policy was piloted 10 years ago and ended in failure.
Finally, when looking at a balanced approach, there are the counterproductive issues. It is counterproductive to put such constraints on students coming to the country that many of our leading institutions fear that they will drop in the world rankings year on year as they fail to attract the students they need or fail to retain them thereafter. That needs to be looked at seriously. I will put in that same bracket the proposals in the Immigration Bill on employee offences. I have no difficulty at all with the provisions that come down harder on employers, but the problem with coming down on employees is that unless individuals have the confidence to come forward, the counter-effect will be that it will not be possible to bring the cases the Bill intends to allow.
In conclusion, we should celebrate the contribution of all those who have come to this country. We need to balance the strong and effective with the fair and humane, but I welcome the fact that we have had this discussion today.
It is an honour and a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I am sorry that I did not have the chance to say the same to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who after a long stint in the Chair presumably had to leave to enjoy some refreshments.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for serving on the Petitions Committee and for leading this debate as he did. I also thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate; I am delighted to say that every single person who has spoken, without exception, has rejected the petition’s wording. That did not surprise me. I hope that the person who started the petition will realise that within the House of Commons there is no one—not one person, I assume—who agrees with them; if there were, they would have come and spoken. I am pleased about that. I am glad to have the opportunity to have this debate but I personally found the wording of the petition simplistic and, I am afraid to say, quite offensive.
It is clear that controlling immigration is a topic of significant public interest and I suspect that many of the people who signed the petition did so because they believe it is an important matter rather than because they agreed with the wording of the petition; I hope I am right in saying that. Similarly, I welcome the opportunity to debate the wider topic of immigration, but it is a shame that that has been under the umbrella of this particular petition. I know that people know this, but the Government totally disagree with the sentiments of the petition. In particular, we reject the idea that anyone is trying to turn this country into a Muslim country or any other type of country that it is not. I note in particular the comments from my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), who rejected completely the horrible implication of the wording that being Muslim or supporting Islam is something that in any way contradicts being British. I support her view.
I offer my commiserations to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who cannot point to any immigrants in his family history. Perhaps that is one reason why he supports independence for Scotland; if he has any English ancestors, he would be able to say that he came from immigrants like the rest of us. In all seriousness, I thank him for his contribution and agree with most of what he said.
I can say with some pride that I have immigrants on both sides of my family. My father’s family were refugees from the Spanish Inquisition and came here, via Holland, in the time of Oliver Cromwell. My great-grandparents on my mother’s side were immigrants from Russia and Poland; in fact, my earliest political conversation was when my late grandmother told me I should always vote Liberal Democrat—actually, she said I should vote Liberal, as she was talking about a time before the Liberal Democrats—because Gladstone, when Prime Minister, brought in the legislation that allowed refugees from persecution to come to this country. I place on the record that I did not take her advice.
In all seriousness, we are proud of the fact that the UK is, without any doubt, a multiracial democracy—I do not know what else it could be called. Most sensible people will be proud of that. It is a tribute to us that more and more people from abroad want to come to the UK, because of the economy, strong family ties and our world-class education system. I commend what the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) said, but in response to his remarks about students I should point out that the most recent figures for the numbers of students coming here show a 4% increase, year on year. The Government’s reforms with regard to foreign students removed the large number of completely fraudulent so-called schools and colleges. The numbers of students coming to this country has increased.
Everyone would agree that we have a proud history of protecting those most in need. The Prime Minister announced to Parliament at the beginning of last month our agreement to resettle 20,000 vulnerable people from the Syrian crisis. I should make it clear that that agreement is about vulnerable people. Some are currently in camps, but they are mainly outside camps. The majority of refugees in Jordan and in Lebanon, in particular, are living in tents in fields, not in camps; that is also the case for a lot of refugees in Turkey.
We have agreed to resettle 20,000 of those people during the course of this Parliament. They are being selected on the grounds of vulnerability. Among the many good points that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam made in his opening remarks, he mentioned his concern about selecting people who came under false pretences as refugees. We are doing everything we can. We are using the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organisation for Migration, which is very experienced about migration, Home Office and other tests to make sure that those people are selected using the United Nations definition of vulnerability. There is no automatic selection.
I appreciate that this issue is not the central point of the debate, but although I have no problem with attempts to assess and process those vulnerable people—most folk would agree with that—the Government will need to take about 380 to 400 people a month to meet their own target of 20,000. Given that those vulnerable people are in the camps he has described, and winter is almost upon us, when can we expect to see some of them settled here?
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has been watching the recording of the sitting of the Home Affairs Committee last week; the Chair of that Committee brought up the same point and asked me repeatedly to come up with an actual number. I do not think that giving a running commentary is correct but, as the Prime Minister mentioned today on the Floor of the House, we intend to have settled 1,000 people by the end of the year. It is difficult to average it out on a month-by-month basis, although the numbers per month would be what the hon. Gentleman said.
I am confident that we can do it, but am wary of the pitfalls. Some were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, such as people coming fraudulently, but we must also have the proper preparations for when people get here. Those will include having housing, the correct medical care for both mental and physical health issues, education where appropriate and English lessons, which are very important.
I commend those local authorities that have helped us with resettling the smaller numbers of people we have resettled so far. I visited Bradford; the council there—a Labour council, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) will be pleased to hear—and its leader, Councillor David Green, really are a model for other councils in what they have done for the refugees they have taken. I also commend the response from the Scottish Government and local authorities in Scotland. Generally, the response has been pretty good and we are confident that, at the moment, the number of places being offered is broadly commensurate with the numbers of people. Very many small local authorities have emailed to say that they would be happy to take refugees. That is a credit to this country and all parts of it, although while we very much appreciate what has been said by some of the smaller Scottish islands, in some cases the offers may not be practical. That makes no difference to the validity of those authorities’ comments, however.
The Government recognise the significant migratory pressures on the UK. Immigration puts pressure on public services. It can damage our labour market and push down wages—all points that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) said so eloquently in her speech, worry constituents. She mentioned the Brighton main line, which I know is very typical. However, she also mentioned that in parts of her constituency there are critical shortages of labour. In the past, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) mentioned with regard to Cornwall, labour shortages have been met with willing, able, hard-working and decent immigrants. The issue is therefore very complex.
There have been many really decent speeches. The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant)—I will get into trouble for my pronunciation of his constituency’s name.
I am very grateful. The hon. Gentleman asked me to make it clear on behalf of the Government that the petition’s wording is unacceptable and undesirable, and I have done that. He also made the valid point that such wording is not new, and, in that respect, I must tell hon. Members a story.
I am Jewish by birth, but I am not religious. However, I attended a Saturday morning service during the election, although that was not for electoral purposes. I had been invited to a bar mitzvah in London—that is the service that happens when a child is 13. This was about the time that Nigel Farage was making his comments about people talking other languages in train carriages. The rabbi’s sermon was very moving and very unusual. There was no Bible; instead, he read out a leader from The Times, which said, “Parts of this country have overwhelming numbers of people who speak different languages, who eat different food and who are taking our jobs at lower pay.” That article, he said, was from 1896. Of course, he was talking about Jewish people—this was a Jewish religious service—and he read the article to shock people, because Nigel Farage had commented that week on how he felt in a railway carriage where people were using different languages. The rabbi did what he did to show that things have not changed. That is very relevant to the issue before us.
This is, however, a general debate about immigration, so I should discuss what the Government are doing to bring migration down to what they and many others believe are sustainable levels. The policy is that we have obviously welcomed the brightest and the best. We have done that by slashing the student fraud I mentioned in response to the shadow Minister’s comments. We have removed about 900 bogus colleges from the sponsors register and toughened access to welfare and housing. Non-EU immigration is 10% lower than it was in September 2010.
Over time, exit checks will begin to provide significant new insights into, and give us a more complete picture of, those leaving the country. We will be able to establish an individual’s immigration status, confirming those who have departed and identifying potential overstayers.
On EU migration, we are cracking down on the abuse of EU free movement and making our welfare system fairer and less open to abuse. We have also scrapped housing benefit for EU jobseekers and limited benefit claims for EU migrants with no prospect of a job. We will negotiate with the EU, and we will bring in further reform to reduce incentives for people coming to the UK from within the EU. It is on the record that the Prime Minister is working with his European partners to achieve those things, and there will be further discussions at the December European Council.
An important aspect of the economy, which several hon. Members mentioned, and which is one reason for immigration, is the shortage of training and skills in terms of people leaving school. I should declare an interest because my previous job was as the Prime Minister’s apprenticeship adviser. The target of 3 million people doing apprenticeships is achievable. The skills arena is the future of the economy, and although the Opposition have made some points about apprentices—there has been talk about some of them not being full apprentices and about there not being a high enough standard—I think there is a consensus that improving this country’s skills is important for the future and may counter the need for immigration.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) mentioned, the Scottish Government are firmly of the view that the right kind of immigration, in what might be seen as quite large numbers, can have a very positive impact on Scotland’s economy. Was the UK-wide target figure that is now being spoken about agreed with the Scottish Government, or was it simply decided, as a reserved matter, without consultation?
I am afraid I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman, because I do not know the answer—I am not hiding it from him. Like most other people, I saw the announcement of the 20,000. However, I can tell him that I met representatives of the Scottish Government—
I apologise for that misunderstanding. I was about to say that I met representatives of the Scottish Government straightaway to discuss Scotland’s share of the 20,000. However, I am afraid that I genuinely do not know the answer to the question he has just asked either—that has got me off the hook.
There is a lot of co-operation between the British and French Governments on the situation in Calais, which has received a lot of publicity. That situation is important, but I should make it clear that it has nothing to do with the refugees we are talking about or with our humanitarian policy of taking refugees from places adjacent to Syria.
There has been some criticism of our approach, and I would like to go on to the point the shadow Minister made about the letter from the lawyers and others published, I think, in The Guardian last week. I do not agree with what they say, because they give no credit to the Government for what they have done to try to help to deal with the refugee crisis. They talk purely about the number of people we are going to take into the country and say that it is inadequate. However, Government policy is clear: we are dealing with everything as part of an holistic, humanitarian issue. We are spending large amounts—about £1.1 billion—on helping refugees in the countries adjacent to Syria. I have been to Jordan, and I have seen the effects of what we are doing. We should be very proud of the money we are spending and of the British people, non-governmental organisations and other organisations that are working there—I could talk about the millions of food parcels and everything else. When I was there, I was told that, possibly apart from the Americans, we are the largest country doing these things. Our policy of bringing vulnerable refugees to this country is part of that, but those who signed the letter in The Guardian gave us no credit for it.
Is not the significance of that statement that those ex-judges have considerable experience, including at international level? The lawyers who signed it included QCs who were briefed on behalf of the Government. These individuals have not come from particularly campaigning backgrounds; they are lawyers and others who are experienced in the field, and who profoundly disagree with the Government’s approach. Does the Minister not agree that, whatever approach they take, the proposals they put on the table warrant serious consideration?
The shadow Minister himself is a lawyer of considerable reputation and expertise, and it would be impossible for me to criticise the legal profession in his presence. All I can say is that I disagree with those who signed the letter. When asked to give a number, the person who was interviewed on the “Today” programme could not. There is not more justification for the number of people they mentioned than there is for Prime Minister’s number of 20,000. He mentioned that number because he feels that that is the number of vulnerable people we can sustain. Those who signed the letter could have mentioned two times, three times or four times the number they did. All decent people want to help, but the Government have to balance different factors.
I am proud of the fact that the Government have promised to take 20,000 people. People have their own views as to whether it should be more. Many people believe it should be fewer, but I am certain that my responsibility is to ensure that the 20,000 people whom the Government have agreed to take are properly selected and brought here with dignity, and given the attention they need. I accept that there are other arguments about the issue, and it cannot be ring-fenced as a refugee issue; the matter is part of the general immigration issue that we have been discussing.
I am proud of this country’s tradition with refugees and that we are playing our part, particularly having seen what we are doing in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to make people’s lives as decent as they can be in the circumstances. The Government should be proud, and by and large there is political consensus on most of the issue, although I accept there may be differences over numbers. I have been keen and quick to commend Labour councils as well as non-Labour councils that have put themselves forward. I do not think that people are playing politics over the matter at all, which is how it should be.
I agreed with most of the long speech made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, but I want to make it clear that the Mr David Harrington he mentioned is no relation to me. If he were, and there was a way for me to expel him from my family, I certainly would, with views like those. To make a serious point, I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s view that a legitimate anti-immigration view is not necessarily a racist view at all, notwithstanding the language used in such a petition as we have been considering. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House discuss immigration on the Floor of the House, and it is cheap to say that a contrary view is racist. That is not so at all, and if anything it does a disservice to the merits of the argument.
I cannot really comment on the idea that the hon. Gentleman raised of bringing people here to do apprenticeships, because that would come under the general apprenticeship programme, but I certainly hope that many of the Syrians who come here will be suited—subject to getting their English language skills up quickly, as we hope will happen—to apprenticeships. I mean that not so that the Government can hit their target, but because it will enhance their lives—what has happened to those people is so tragic.
I agree with the definition of managed immigration offered by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay—I thought that was very good—and with his plea for us to treat refugees with compassion. From what I saw in Bradford of the smaller number of people who have come in up to now under the vulnerable persons scheme, they are treated with compassion, including the provision of housing for them. They are given a Syrian meal, cooked by local Syrians, when they arrive, and a lot of individual mentoring. Speaking to them reveals the tragedies of their lives. One person told me that two or three years ago they were practising as a dentist in Aleppo. One had been a professor of ancient languages at a university. We cannot imagine: it happened like that—I do not know whether my clicking my finger can go into Hansard. I apologise for that. What happened was so instantaneous that their lives were transformed, tragically.
I have taken rather a lot of the House’s time, but I think this is exactly the sort of debate we should have. Members across the House have no truck with the words of the petition, and I look forward to many future debates, when I hope to be able to report positively on the resettling of Syrian refugees.
It is a privilege and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
The title of the petition has been read out in parts, and not necessarily in its entirety, but for the benefit of anyone reading it in Hansard, I will explain that it is “Stop allowing immigrants into the UK”, and it was started on 25 August 2015. I am sure that readers will be able to find it on the petitions website.
I know that the Petitions Committee will take the feedback from the various Members who have spoken. We always consider the action taken on any petition, and this one will be no exception. Having given a reminder of the petition title, perhaps I should also clarify the fact that the extraordinary noise we heard a few seconds ago was the Minister clicking his fingers.
I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for this measured debate. I did not seek election just to wring my hands about any subject; in the current context, my aim would be, much as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) said, a better way to manage migration—and also to take the population of the country with us on the journey, and turn around the ocean liner. We must always call out xenophobia, prejudice and bigotry when they are in front of us, but I suspect that, as the Minister said, many of the 198,000 people who signed the petition may have done so out of frustration and anger at what they see, and what they perceive through tabloid headlines and things they read on the internet. When I have spoken in my constituency to people who have similar views about immigration, I have found that when the issue is discussed rationally and reasonably they tend to row back from their extreme positions.
We must not shy away from such debates. We must continue to debate such issues whenever they arise. I am grateful to the Minister and all those who have taken part in the debate for the measured way in which we have conducted it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to immigration.