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Population Growth: Impact of Immigration

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the impact of immigration on population growth.

It is a delight to speak in this Chamber on a subject which is not a delight; it everything but a delight, as I shall articulate briefly in this important debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.

The greatest Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli—of course, a Conservative, but I suppose that is implicit—said that

“change is inevitable…change…is constant.”

I want to speak about the course, character and consequences of change.

Each of us encounters change in our lives. The ultimate change is death, the first change we enjoy is birth, and those between can be either joys or sorrows, but our capacity to adapt to change is not limitless. The enduring touchstones of familiarity help to give our lives certainty and assurance, and it is vital that we understand that that applies communally and collectively as well as personally. Yet the changes that this country has seen in population growth have been dramatic.

So much of the political debate that we cherish and thrive upon in this place is about change, and yet the Government have made no real measure of the effect of a rapidly growing population and have no mechanism across Government to deal with its consequences. When I first ran for Parliament in 1987—I know there are people in this Chamber thinking, “How can that be possible?” and it is true that I was all but a boy in those days—net migration was just 2,000. Up until the mid-1990s, migration was essentially balanced. We had people leaving the country and people coming, and that is what all advanced countries enjoy, for it is the inevitable consequence of being an advanced economy.

When I was first elected to this House in 1997, 10 years later, net migration was 47,000. Ten years later—10 difficult, and some would say tragic, years under the stewardship of Mr Blair—net migration was 233,000. Under the previous Labour Government, total migration was 3.6 million, and nearly 1 million British citizens emigrated, so net migration topped 2.7 million. The rate of inflow between 1997 and 2010 equated to one migrant arriving every minute. Every year since 1997 bar one—when the world was locked down—net migration was in excess of 100,000, and often by a much bigger margin than that. Indeed, net migration has averaged about 250,000 a year over the past two decades.

The most recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics last month are truly shocking: they heralded record net migration of 606,000.

Does my right hon. Friend find it even more, frankly, antidemocratic that at no point in that whole process since the 1980s have the electorate been asked whether that outcome is what they want?

That is entirely true. Indeed, there is a huge gulf between the expectations and the sentiments of the vast bulk of the British population on this subject and those of that awful marriage of greedy plutocrats and doubt-fuelled liberals, who seem to think that endless migration is acceptable. My hon. Friend is right: this has been done without consent—indeed, without as much as consultation, let alone consent.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on bringing this forward. I understand the direction he is going in, but my understanding is that 1.2 million people migrated to the UK and 557,000 left to go elsewhere. That leaves a balance, as the right hon. Gentleman said, of 606,000 at the end of June ’22. Does the right hon. Member accept that many of the people who are coming here have a contribution to make to society and can build society alongside us? I understand that economic migrants are outside of this system, but there are many who want to make a contribution. Does he accept that fact, and does he think that the contributions they make to the NHS and to families are important?

Yes, of course I accept that and I will say a bit more on that later on. Of course it is true that people come here and make remarkable contributions to our communities and to our society. This is not about a failure to acknowledge that contribution; it is about dealing with the unprecedented scale and pace of it. It is impossible to sustain this level of migration for reasons I will set out.

To be clear about the relationship to population, migration alone accounts for 57.5% of population growth in England and Wales. Since 2001, the UK population has increased by 8 million, of which nearly 7 million was due to immigration. Just imagine that figure for a moment. To put it in context, that equates to the combined populations of Birmingham, Manchester, Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Peterborough, Ipswich, Norwich, Luton and Bradford. A much higher population increase can be expected in future years unless we do something radical to address this problem.

My point relates to the ratio of numbers of individuals who have come to certain regions of the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, we have a fairly small population—maybe even in comparison with some of the cities that have just been mentioned—and yet we have received a large percentage of the people coming in. I am talking about illegal immigrants, of which we took 3,356 in Northern Ireland. We were told that we would take 1,000. Those people are in 21 hotels, which are part of one of our growth industries in Northern Ireland, and are taking up more than 1,100 rooms. That is a big problem. Unfortunately, Scotland has taken a lot fewer. People will ask what is going on there. It is not fair.

Of course, when people arrive in the country, there is no accounting for where they choose to go. They will typically go to places where there is work, understandably; we would, too, after all. When I speak of these general numbers, the impact in certain parts of the country, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, has been much more profound than in others.

To go back to my point about change. The ability to cope with that level of change economically, socially and culturally has placed immense burdens on those communities that have enjoyed the greatest levels of migration. The population of this country grew by 606,000 last year. The fact that that is unprecedented is a matter of fact. The fact that it is unacceptable is obvious. The scale of growth will put unbearable pressure on already stretched—

I will be happy to do so in a second, but I just want to illustrate my point.

My hon. Friend may have been about to intervene to tell us this, but last year, we built around 180,000 houses. Bear in mind that the population increased by 600,000. We did not, and could not, build enough surgeries, clinics and hospitals to cope with more than 600,000 additional people. We cannot build enough new railways and roads to deal with the extra demand. We are simply adding 600,000 people to an infrastructure already in desperate need of being upgraded. The pressure on the NHS, which my hon. Friend will know a great deal about, is immense. There were 700,000 new GP registrations last year by people entering the country.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I wonder whether he might reflect that last year was slightly unusual in that this country rightly took in approximately 130,000 Ukrainian refugees. There was also a net inflow of about 90,000 British citizens returning. There were other refugees from Afghanistan and Hong Kong to whom we rightly held out our hand as a country to give refuge.

On a wider point, my right hon. Friend is at slight risk of suggesting that immigration per se is bad, when we recognise that people who come here and work hard for the NHS can make a great contribution to our country. Frankly, a number of our public services could not operate without them.

People come with an economic need as well as providing an economic benefit. There are costs and benefits to every individual in this room and every person who arrives in the country. The degree of cost they bring will depend on their circumstances. If someone comes who is sick, elderly or infirm, their demand on the NHS will be much greater. If someone comes who is young and fit, economically active and skilled, their contribution to the economy will be much greater.

My hon. Friend is right that last year was exceptional, for the reasons he gave. When I spoke of a typical figure over the period of 250,000, he will understand that that is the size of several substantial cities. Just housing those people alone is proving impossible. The biggest single driver of housing demand is migration, and has been for a very long time indeed.

My hon. Friend is also right that our health service benefits immensely from people born overseas. Both of my sons were delivered by people born overseas. I have been treated by all kinds of specialist doctors, nurses and others born overseas, as have members of my family. I thank them for that service, and fully recognise and appreciate the contribution they have made.

It is important to say, in respect of that, that the reason why that contribution is required is that we have palpably failed to train home-grown people, who could take the same jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we fall into a lazy argument if we simply talk in platitudes, rather than look at the lives and opportunities of our citizens?

My hon. Friend encourages me to digress, though within the scope of the matter before us. There is a macroeconomic lesson that needs to be taught to the Treasury and the Office for Budget Responsibility. There is a lazy assumption that increasing population is an automatic good for the economy. It is certainly true that an economy can be grown by those means, but that does not mean per capita growth. It means growth of an altogether cruder kind.

Moreover, the macroeconomic fact is that doing so displaces investment in recruitment, skills and modernising the economy. The economy is stultified in a high-labour mode. Britain’s chance to succeed and prosper in future is as a high-tech, high-skilled economy. Rather than displacing our attention, and subsequently policy and investment, in those skills, by recruiting labour from abroad, we should indeed look closely at the kind of economic future we want to build, and drive policy forward towards that future. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the myth that pervades the economic debate about migration.

I want to make two more points. One is on the likely future population. Experts estimate that the UK population could grow from 67 million to between 83 million and 87 million by 2046 if current immigration trends continue. Growth to 80 million-plus will result in the need to build between 6 million and 8 million more homes. That is equal to between 15 and 18 more cities the size of Birmingham by 2046. I do not say it lightly or blithely, but this is by far the greatest challenge facing the Government.

I would like to expand on that very point and return to the issue of housing. My right hon. Friend might be interested to know of a visit I made to a housing development site in the midlands, where the vast majority of sales were to British national overseas people from Hong Kong, who were buying homes en masse on a development. When the development had been planned, it was not known that this migration route would be open, so the planners did not have that population level in mind. Does that not illustrate the challenges of long-term planning—how long it takes to build the homes we need—and show that the very quick changes in migration patterns have the impact he has described?

I agree with my hon. Friend and pay tribute to her work in her constituency and more widely to highlight these issues.

To put this in perspective, if the UK continues to welcome the number of people we are admitting now, we would need to build 6.5 million more homes solely to cope with population growth over that period. Current immigration numbers require a home to be built in England every five minutes to meet skyrocketing demand. By contrast, even modest changes such as cutting net migration levels back to about 100,000 would help young people to get on the property ladder and prevent more of our countryside from being lost forever to house building.

Given the dramatically increased numbers of people coming here, driving immigration to levels never seen before in British history, urgent action must be taken. I look forward to hearing what action my right hon. Friend the Minister has in mind, but let me make some suggestions. Some work has been done already, due to the exceptional Home Secretary and Minister for Immigration that we are proud to have as members of the Government. The measures to limit master’s degree students bringing their dependants is welcome but insufficient. As I said at the time, it is odd—I will put it no more strongly—that those who are studying a taught master’s can no longer bring their dependants, but those who are studying a research master’s can.

Frankly, we need to be more bold altogether. We should raise the wage threshold for those entering the country on employment visas. We must look closely at the health service and the charges for accessing it—after all, it is a national, not international, health service. We need to focus on building domestic skills, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), which would reduce the need to bring in people with skills that should be home-grown. We certainly need to look at the number of spouse visas issued and the criteria for issuing visas of that kind.

More than all of that, we need to recognise that people coming here can do an important job for us and welcome them accordingly, but they must know that they too will be disadvantaged if the infrastructure creaks to the point of breaking due to this unprecedented level of population growth.

The best way forward would be for the Government to take a holistic look at this challenge. My good friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, in excellent paper he published through the think-tank Civitas, wrote of the need for an office for demographic change along the lines of the Office for Budget Responsibility. It would be missioned to establish proper evidence, provide expert advice and recommend actions for the Government and other agencies to deal with population change. It would set out long-term strategies to meet the needs that are inevitably the product of population growth. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that very sensible idea.

We need to reduce the period that graduates can stay after completing their degrees from two years to about six months, and we must look again at the shortage occupations and skilled workers routes to ensure we are bringing people into the country only when strictly necessary and not allowing businesses to simply hire cheap labour. There is real evidence of declining working conditions. That point has been made very well by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock): working conditions, salaries and so on have been detrimentally affected because some of the people I described as greedy plutocrats—that was an understatement, by the way—would rather employ people on the cheap than do the right thing by their workers. I thought he made a strong case about that when he spoke about it recently in the House.

Disraeli also said:

“Man is not the creature of circumstances. Circumstances are the creatures of men.”

The prevailing circumstances this country faces in respect of population growth cannot be ignored any longer. We need leadership—I know my right hon. Friend the Minister is well placed to offer it—across the whole of Government because this affects every aspect of government. I have spoken about health, housing and infrastructure; I could have spoken about transport. Every time someone complains about roads and potholes —as they often do—they should know that every extra 10,000 or 100,000 people using the roads puts extra pressure on the infrastructure. I could pick almost every aspect of government—every Department. We need urgent action; otherwise, we will fragment our society, undermine our sense of shared belonging and alter our communities forever. More than that: we will not be able to sustain the good quality of life that British people rightly expect and want the Government to help them enjoy.

Order. This debate has a hard stop at 5.55 pm. I intend to call Alison Thewliss at 5.32 pm or thereabouts, so Members, monitor yourselves.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) on securing this debate. It is good to see him leading the debate on this issue, as he does on so many others.

In any advanced, modern economy and free society, people come and leave. That has always been the case in this country, and for the vast majority of our history the numbers of those coming and going have more or less been broadly in balance, as my right hon. Friend said. Sadly, for much of the past 25 years, that has not been the case. The Blair Government famously admitted to sending out search parties in an effort to bring immigrants here, and they deliberately engineered mass immigration to change the fabric of our society. Sadly, for all the promises over the past 13 years, that trend has broadly continued.

Last year, a staggering 1.2 million people came to the UK—equivalent to the population of Birmingham, or 10 times the population of Blackpool. Net migration totalled 606,000—a colossal number, simply unprecedented in modern times. Although last year’s figure was something of an anomaly, the general trend over much of the past two decades has been net migration in excess of 250,000 annually. That is simply not sustainable in any way, shape or form, and it is the British people—those who placed their trust in us to control immigration—who are suffering the consequences of this failure.

There is much talk at present of the housing crisis. Supply side issues, such as lack of planning reform, comparatively low numbers of new builds and the Government’s ill-advised interventions in the private rented sector, have all contributed to that crisis, but it is clear that immigration is the elephant in the room. We cannot allow the population to grow by the equivalent the population of Glasgow, as we did last year, and then wonder why on earth there is a housing shortage that is causing misery for so many people.

It is not just housing that is at breaking point. Our public services are also creaking under the strain of mass immigration. Take the NHS, for example: waiting lists are at a record high—yes, partly as a consequence of the pandemic, but the trend was long in evidence long before then—and I know as a former primary school teacher that in some of our schools much of the additional investment and funding put in over the last decade has been directed at specialist tuition and support for children who arrived here without having mastered the basics of the English language.

There have also been profound impacts on our labour market, with reduced investment in technological innovation due to over-reliance on cheap foreign labour. This has hurt productivity and suppressed wages for working people in all sorts of sectors, as I see in my local economy in Blackpool. We have to wean ourselves off this dependency on low-skilled foreign labour and an economic model that is, sadly, broken.

The immense demands that such high levels of immigration place on housing and our public services are recognised by the British people, who, frankly, are fed up with the situation. Time after time, they have stated that they want less immigration, and time after time they have been left disappointed. The Brexit referendum in 2016 was perhaps the clearest illustration of that, with many people, myself included, voting to leave the EU precisely on the basis of a promise to control immigration. Although we have ended free movement of people, which is to our credit, it is no good swapping high levels of EU immigration for high levels of immigration from the rest of the world.

Many of those who voted to leave the EU, and indeed many of those who supported our party in 2019, many of them for the first time, did so partly on the basis of our manifesto pledge to control immigration. Understandably, they now feel bitterly disappointed by our inability to control net migration, and who can blame them? Sustained high levels of immigration have changed the nature of some of our communities forever, and when new arrivals have not integrated into those communities, it has on occasion created significant problems.

The frustration that so many ordinary people feel is exacerbated by the fact that too few people in the liberal, metropolitan political establishment, across all political parties, are prepared to face up to the consequences of high immigration. People have been far too squeamish to confront its realities out of a misguided sense of political correctness. Sadly, some of those who have recognised the impact that it has had have further eroded public trust with their failed promises to tackle the issue.

Our failure to stop the small boats is the most obvious focus of people’s anger and frustration. We have rightly made stopping the small boats a key priority, and I commend the Minister for leading the way on that. However, we will be judged not only on that aim but on our promises to reduce net migration. Time, and the patience of the British people, is, sadly, running out.

Thank you very much indeed for calling me to speak, Mr Paisley.

I did not come here to Westminster Hall to talk about figures. I came here to talk about what I believe is the important factor that has dominated the debate on immigration in Parliament for the last 20 to 30 years: the complete ignoring of vast sections of the population by the people who sit in this House.

The people who sit in this House have often refined their attitude to immigration. Mr Paisley, please forgive me for reading this, but in 1774 Edmund Burke, with whom I normally agree, said:

“Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

In that speech, Burke also used a phrase that I think should be a flashing red light for all politicians: “his enlightened conscience”. What we have seen in Parliament for the last 20 to 30 years is people who believe they have enlightened consciences and who have made decisions on the basis of their own ideological views, at the expense of their constituents. I have repeated that point continually, and I cannot be the only MP who feels that way.

When I first became involved in politics in Bury in 2010, as all people do who get involved with political parties I travelled around the north of England. Without a shadow of a doubt, at nearly every single door that I knocked on, immigration was the issue raised. It was not a nuanced debate; it was not, “Let’s talk about how many people use the NHS.” It was essentially, “There are too many people coming into this country and we are extremely concerned about it.” That is going back over a decade.

When I was growing up, immigration was something that could not be discussed. “You can’t mention things to do with immigration or race, because you’re almost certainly racist.” There was a chorus of people only too willing to challenge you on that basis.

This Government face a real decision on where they want to go in terms of representing the opinion of the British people and representing constituents such as mine in Bury, as well as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) and others. We could decide to take the perfectly intellectually coherent view, which I am sure will be articulated by the Scottish National party and the Labour party, that immigration is a matter of conscience and morality. When morality comes into any debate in this place, I shrink away from it; my morality may well be very different from yours, Mr Paisley, or anybody else’s. Anyone who decides policy on the basis of their own prejudices is to be questioned and thought of as a politician who is not serving their people.

A politician who looks at immigration in the correct way is a politician who takes account not only of the views of their constituents and people in the country but of the practical consequences. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) has set out the practical consequences. In today’s debate in this Chamber, however, especially by Members of other parties, those two things have been ignored.

I often wonder what the Labour party thinks when it looks at why Brexit happened and why the Conservatives had such a majority in 2019. I can tell the Opposition that it is because, especially in the north of England, Labour politicians for 40 years ignored their own constituents’ views—not only ignored them but considered them to be racist. That is the basis of the Labour party’s downfall and it is what made Brexit happen. It would be a great tragedy if the Government, under the excellent Minister—I genuinely mean that; he is a great man and a great Minister—do not respond to the issue that people trusted us on.

Going back briefly to the issue of Brexit, I often hear in this House from colleagues who fought titanic battles, and talk about regaining our sovereignty. Brexit was about immigration. We can kid ourselves it was about anything else, but in Blackpool and Bury it was about immigration. That is what shifted the votes in their millions. We never hear about it in this place. We talk in nuanced terms that completely exclude voters from the debate, and then we wonder why the voters look at this place like they do.

The people in this place do not represent the views of the people on the issue of immigration. As Burke said back in 1774, they are people who consider themselves to have an enlightened conscience; they ignore the views of their constituents and would prefer to judge policy by their own perceived morality and judgment—and to hell with the consequences for housing, opportunity and skills. Who are the people who are sacrificed because of the ideology that has gone on in this country for 40 to 50 years? It is the poorest. That is the true shame of the policy, and it must change.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It is great to be able to participate in this debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) on introducing it.

I will concentrate on the issue of the population, because that is the core issue we have got to address. In 1990, which is the base date for all our policies relating to net zero and so-called climate change, the population then was about 20% less than it is now. There has been a 20% increase in population since then, yet all our net zero targets are related to absolute figures, rather than to carbon dioxide emissions per head of population. That is a dimension to the debate that I do not think we have sufficiently addressed.

When the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I have the privilege of serving, was asking an environment Minister the other day what is being taken into account in determining the impact of rising population on the ability of the Government to deliver on their net zero targets, there was a big gasp—“Oh, well, there is no briefing on that.” He did not have a clue. All that happened was that the Minister resorted to talking about heat pumps. He seemed to think that that was the answer to the question, which I raised. Yet we know that heat pumps are a subsidiary issue.

The Government keep setting targets for almost everything under the sun. Yesterday, I visited a garden centre and found that the Government are prescribing the amount of peat that we can have in a grow bag. They are prescribing that, but they have no policy whatever on the number of people we think it is right to have in our country.

I visited Hungary with some colleagues a few weeks back. Hungary does have a strong population policy. The Prime Minister there, who recently got re-elected with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, has the support of his people in recognising that one can limit immigration and at the same time grow one’s population and grow one’s economy.

On the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings made about growth in the economy, I think that is one of the most destructive policies that this Government are adopting. They are talking about GDP growth as being a good thing, but what should really count is GDP growth per person—per capita—and if you look at the figures, Mr Paisley, you will see that, in effect, over the last 10 years GDP per head of population has been static. We have not had that growth, so when people feel that they have not shared in the growth, the answer is no, they have not, because to a large extent the growth is actually being generated just by having more people in the country. The Government can brag about the fact that we have higher growth than Germany, but actually that growth is a mirage in terms of the economy, because it is not growth per head of population; it is the overall growth created by just bringing more people into the country, so this is an overdue but very timely debate.

The contribution that net migration makes to population growth is important, but let us first of all get a policy on our population. We have not had a population policy in this country. Why do not Ministers go off and see what is being done in Hungary, which is addressing this problem in a really constructive way? It is incentivising the home-grown population to grow their families, while at the same time having tight control over migration from outside, and encouraging people to develop their skills instead of allowing employers to take the easy shortcut of bringing in people who are already trained from overseas, thereby denuding those economies of their skillsets. There is a lot to be done, and I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Minister, in responding to this debate, will be able to promise that we will introduce a population policy. I hope he will.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. Oh my goodness, where to start with this debate? Well, I will start with my own constituency of Glasgow Central, in which 24.7% of the population were born outside the UK. In the constituency of the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), who brought forward this debate, 8.9% of the population were born outside the UK; in the constituency of the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton), 5.7%; in Bury North, 8.4%; in Christchurch, 5.5%; and in the Minister’s constituency, 5.7% of the population were born outside the UK. Before we get started on any of this, Mr Paisley, let me say that I will not take any criticism from anybody about immigration or attitudes towards it in Scotland, because I am in a far stronger position to talk about these issues than any of them are, given the demographics of my own constituency.

The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings approached the debate by talking about the lack of housing, healthcare capacity and schools. Those infrastructure problems were caused, in huge part, by a lack of investment from the party that has been in government in the UK for the past 13 years. Investment has not kept pace with population growth in this country. The right hon. Gentleman should be addressing those concerns to this Government, because that infrastructure investment has not taken place. That is why there is not enough housing: he and his colleagues stand up and go, “Oh, we don’t want any housing in our constituencies; we don’t want housing in this place, that place or other places,” then they wonder why there are not enough houses. An absolute mystery, I must say, Mr Paisley.

No, I will not. I listened with patience to the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, and he can listen with patience to mine.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about issues with skills and labour. I agree that there needs to be more investment in skills in the population. Again, the Government have cut back on education infrastructure over all these years at the cost of education, so people have not been able to go into it. For example, the UK Government removed nursing bursaries. We kept them in Scotland, and people are going through that system and becoming the nurses who we so need.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the fact that people here are perhaps not having children. Gosh, is that because there are no nursery places for them because this Government have failed to invest in those places? The lack of childcare is preventing women from having children, and that is a significant problem that this Government have caused—[Interruption.] He did talk about the issue of families here not having children and those demographic challenges. Other Members talked about it too.

On a point of order, Mr Paisley. Hyperbole is one thing; calumnies are another. I did not mention people in this country not having children. I did not mention families. I do not know whether that was an invention or a misunderstanding, but it was one or the other.

Order. That is not a point of order, as you know. Throughout this debate, people have been listened to quietly and all their points have been made. Allow the SNP representative to make her points quietly and with dignity.

Thank you kindly, Mr Paisley. I will accept that the right hon. Gentleman did not make that point about demographics, but one of his colleagues did. Perhaps that is happening because in this country, people have been demonised for having children by the two-child limit, which has reduced family size. It has had an impact on the number of people in poorer demographics having children, because there is no support through the social security system. There is a cost of living crisis—perhaps Government Members have not quite noticed that—which means that families are holding off from having children because they do not feel that they can afford them.

We have talked about housing policy in the UK, and issues with measures chopping and changing, as well as with targets moving and shifting and disappearing. In Scotland, we have built lots of social housing. We have invested in that sector and we have stopped things such as the right to buy, which removed affordable housing from many communities in England.

In Scotland, our issues are about emigration, not immigration. The depopulation of areas such as our islands has been a problem for generations. For that reason, I am sure the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) will be pleased to hear that Scotland has a national action plan and population strategy. We started that because we are losing people, not because we want to close the door and prevent them from coming in. We want devolution of immigration law to allow us to tackle issues such as the depopulation of our island communities and to put further investment into them.

Brexit is the elephant in the room in many ways, but not in the way Government Members seem to think. Brexit has meant a loss of skills. It has meant people feeling unwelcome. It has meant that qualified staff in universities have gone elsewhere because they cannot further their research in the UK. Government Members mentioned graduates. They seem to want to take international students for their fees and then kick them out. That is no way to welcome people or to thank them for choosing to be in this country.

On the issue of students and dependants, in a written parliamentary question I asked the Minister how the Government calculates the amount brought into this country through immigration health surcharges and dependant visas. They could not draw out that number from their immigration figures. There is no evidence to suggest that dependants of students are any kind of burden, because the Government cannot produce that information when asked.

It is a fact that we are more likely to be treated by an immigrant in hospital than find one in the bed next to us. They come here and help out our health service to a ridiculous degree, if indeed they are allowed to work. I have constituents who are waiting for Home Office permission to be allowed to work in the NHS. They would dearly love to be able to be using their skills to help people in Scotland, but are not permitted to do so at a time when health and social work has its highest number of vacancies. In September to November 2022, there were 3.9 vacancies for every 100 employee jobs.

The skills gaps go right across the other sectors in our society. We have huge shortages. We need people to come in and work because there are vacancies, and the vacancy rates significantly impact both the UK’s productivity and its GDP growth, as other Members have mentioned. We are refusing to take those skills—refusing to let people come in, and closing the door on them—and that makes me incredibly sad because that is not what Scotland chooses.

People talked about hearing about immigration on the doorsteps. I go around the doorsteps in my constituency just the same, listening to people’s concerns, and they accept that immigration is important—that people come to Scotland to contribute skills and jobs. People in Pollokshields love the joy of being able to go and buy fresh mangoes and pakora on their doorstep. They welcome all of those things that immigrants bring to enrich our culture, and it makes me incredibly sad that the Conservative Members do not think that immigrants have anything to bring.

I will close with some words from The Proclaimers:

“All through the story the immigrants came

The Gael and the Pict, the Angle and Dane

From Pakistan, England and from the Ukraine

We’re all Scotland’s story and we’re all worth the same

Your Scotland’s story is worth just the same”.

It is a pleasure to serve under your Chairship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) on securing this vital debate, and thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

That net migration is currently at its highest level on record is beyond question. Historically, the number averaged around 200,000 per year—of course I am not going back as far as the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings did, but instead looking across recent years—while, of course, the figures this year came out at 606,000. It is therefore entirely fair to ask questions about why the number has grown by so much and whether continued growth at such numbers would be sustainable over time.

Debates on this issue can always be contentious, as I think we have just seen, but I hope that we can all agree on the need to have a well-informed discussion based on facts and evidence and driven by an honest assessment of the trade-offs that lie at the heart of this issue. Unfortunately, though, our national conversation on immigration is too often characterised by oversimplification and false binaries. For example, it is clear that a substantial proportion of the public are concerned about the current level of migration overall, and their worries are entirely legitimate given the amount of pressure on our social infrastructure following 13 years of successive Conservative Governments hollowing out our public services and utterly failing to build enough affordable housing. However, it is equally true that we are confronted by a demographic challenge when we consider that the replacement rate—the ratio of births to deaths—has been below 1:1 for the past 50 years. Meanwhile, the dependency ratio—or the number of working people per retiree—has fallen from roughly 15:1 at the time that Lloyd George introduced the first state pension, over 100 years ago, to around 4:1 by the time that this Government came into office in 2010.

Rather than taking a narrow, blinkered, partisan position that dismisses one of those factors in favour of the other, we should see the immigration question through the prism of competing priorities that must be well managed so that we get the balance right and deliver the best possible outcomes for our country. It is also vital that we avoid the temptation to see immigration policy as something that operates in isolation from other policy challenges. Rebuilding our public services and housing infrastructure after 13 years of Tory neglect will be a top priority for the next Labour Government, and we are clear that doing so will also help to build more cohesive community relations.

The competing priorities that underpin immigration policy are perfectly illustrated by the points-based system for skilled workers. Labour supports the points-based system—indeed, we created it in 2008 for non-EU citizens—but it is clear to us that the way in which this Government are managing the system is simply not working, because Ministers have failed to engage with employers and trade unions such that our economy gets the overseas labour it needs while ensuring that those key stakeholders bring forward workforce plans and skills and training strategies that maximise opportunities for our home-grown talent. As a result, for too long employers have seen immigrant labour as a substitute for investing in local workers.

It is also clear that with 7 million people on the NHS waiting list and more than 2 million people on long-term sick leave, we urgently need a Labour Government so that we can implement our new deal for working people, as set out by the Leader of the Opposition along with the shadow Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), and the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth).

I turn now to our broken asylum system. It was this Government who gave us new legislation—the Nationality and Borders Act 2022—that we were told would increase the fairness and efficacy of the asylum system, break the business model of the people-smuggling gangs and remove more easily from the UK those with no right to be here. Well, it is almost one year to the day since that legislation came into force, yet here we are again with new legislation and the same old promises from Ministers, as if none of it had ever happened.

Whereas those on the Conservative Benches offer nothing but platitudes and more broken promises, a Labour Government will act decisively to deliver an immigration system that is fair, affordable, sustainable and, above all, fit for purpose. We will reform the points-based system by ending the disparity between wage rates paid to migrant and non-migrant workers in order to prevent undercutting and abuse, and we will engage with employers and trade unions to deliver workforce plans that strike the right balance between inflows and homegrown talent. Equally, if not more importantly, we will deliver a comprehensive workforce plan to upskill our homegrown workforce and equip the next generation with the skills and knowledge to meet the long-term demands of an ever more interconnected global economy, in which specialist knowledge and skills are at a premium.

As I said earlier, public concern about immigration is focused on a range of issues, including both economy-driven immigration and asylum. However, far from stopping the boats, as is so often promised, the Conservatives “bigger backlog” Bill will deliver nothing more than chaos, inefficiency, unfairness and further costs to taxpayers. We need Labour’s five-point plan to stop the dangerous channel crossings by delivering on tasks based on common sense and quiet diplomacy, rather than chasing headlines and the government-by-gimmick that the Immigration Minister is so fond of.

Under the five-point plan, we will scrap the unworkable, unethical and unaffordable Rwanda plan, and channel the funding into the National Crime Agency. We will triage the backlog so that there is much faster processing of high grant-rate and low grant-rate countries, and reverse the catastrophic decision made in 2013 to downgrade caseworkers and decision makers’ seniority, which led to a collapse in productivity and to poorer decisions being made. We will make the resettlement schemes work—the Afghanistan scheme has completely collapsed, which is frankly shameful, given that we owe a debt of gratitude to people in Afghanistan. We will get a returns deal with the European Union, which we know has to be based on having safe and controlled legal pathways, and we will get our aid programme working so that we are focused particularly on countries that are generating a large number of refugees rather than plundering the aid budget, which is being used to fund hotels in this country.

Order. I thank the hon. Member for his comments. I have to call the Minister at this point. Minister, you have about 11 minutes.

Thank you, Mr Paisley. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) for securing the debate and for his kind words—flattery, of course, will get you everywhere.

There are few more important decisions for this Parliament to make than who gets to come to our country, which is why the debate is so critical. My right hon. Friend is right to say that, over the decades, immigration has generally occurred in this country in an ad hoc manner, without the careful thought and planning that it warrants. Sometimes it has been successful, and sometimes less so, but it has rarely been planned in the way that it should be. As has been said, the levels of immigration that we are currently seeing, and have seen for most of my adult lifetime, are significantly higher than throughout the history of this country. The level of net migration that we have seen in the past 25 years is not normal by historical standards, and it is right that we consider the consequences of that and whether we should take action to change it.

My right hon. Friend said that Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts proposed to create an organisation to consider more deeply the demographic changes that the country is experiencing. In fact, I met Lord Hodgson to discuss just that. I know him well, having grown up not far from Astley Abbotts, where his mother created the most northerly lavender farm in Europe in her 80s—that is by the by. His proposal is very important and worthy of consideration. The issue is something that the Migration Advisory Committee could play a greater part in considering when it advises the Government on changes to our immigration system, but, if not, I think there is a good argument for having a separate organisation. I committed to Lord Hodgson to give further thought to the topic.

My right hon. Friend and a number of others raised the profound consequences that large quantities of migration have on the population of this country as regards housing, access to public services and integration, cohesion and unity. We should consider each of those points very seriously. I have paid particular interest to housing throughout my time as a Minister. It is undoubtedly true that if 600,000 additional people come to this country every year, that has profound consequences for house prices and, in particular, for the poorest in society, who want either to get on to the housing ladder or to access social housing. We have to take that seriously.

I made a speech recently at Policy Exchange about the impact of illegal migration. Although that is a different subject, many of the same arguments apply. We have to make sure we are representing our constituents’ true opinions correctly, as my right hon. Friend said, and we must be cognisant of the consequences, including the pressure on public services, housing and integration.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend argued—again, the Government would agree—that companies should not reach in the first instance for the easy lever of foreign labour. That is not the route to productivity enhancement and prosperity. If it was, this country would be even more prosperous than it is today, given the large amounts of legal migration that we have seen in the past 25 years. We have to encourage companies to embrace technology and automation, train their staff and invest in their skills.

The Government are doing that in a number of ways through our skills reforms, such as those for apprenticeships. My right hon. Friend started that process when he was the apprentices Minister many years ago. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has made it one of the central missions of his tenure to ensure we get more of the economically inactive in our country back into the workplace, and to ensure businesses support them in the first instance rather than reach for those overseas.

The Government’s most crucial reform in this Parliament was taking back control. It is as a result of leaving the European Union that, for the first time in my lifetime, Governments of this country can control the levers that dictate the numbers of people coming into our country. That is an absolutely essential change. It is now in our hands, but there has been a lazy assumption that control alone was sufficient and that people were not concerned about numbers. I disagree with that, and the Government do too. We believe that net migration is far too high, and we need to take action to bring it down over the medium term.

It is correct that, as others have said, the levels of net migration we have seen in the past two years have included some exceptional factors. The kaleidoscope was shaken as a result of covid, and we have subsequently seen very large numbers of people return to the UK, such as students. We have made important commitments, such as creating the Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan schemes—all of which we should be proud of and which should command high levels of public support. In fact, the UK, contrary to the view we sometimes hear expressed on the left, is one of the world’s leading countries for humanitarian protection schemes. Since 2015, under a Conservative Government, we have enabled half a million people to come into this country for humanitarian purposes. But we need to do more.

We have recently taken a significant step, which my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings mentioned, to ensure that dependants of students cannot come with a student unless they are coming for longer research degrees, such as PhDs. That will make a tangible difference to numbers in the years ahead. Most importantly, it reaffirms the principle that universities should be in the education business, not the migration business. No one should be coming to this country to study merely as a back door to a life in the UK. They are entirely separate things.

If there are further steps we need to take, we can and should do so. My right hon. Friend raised a number of important points to which I will give further consideration. He knows that I have sympathy about the salary threshold. There is a question as to whether the immigration health surcharge is at a fair place or whether there is more that can be done. There is also a question about whether family visas and such are being issued appropriately. Those are all things that the Home Office keeps under review. If we need to take further action there, we obviously will do.

I am conscious that my right hon. Friend is keen to speak at the end of the debate, so I will—

I only have a few seconds. I don’t want to deprive my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings—

Can the Minister set out what the Government believe the right target is for the population of this country?

That is a big question to answer in 30 seconds. What we have said is that we remain true to our manifesto commitment that we will seek to bring down net migration in the medium term. My hon. Friend can see from the first step that the Home Secretary and I have made on student dependants the seriousness with which we take this challenge. I hope I have said in my remarks that I am very alive to the issue. I take seriously the profound consequences of net migration on community cohesion and access to public services and housing. If there are further things we can do, such as some of the ideas raised by Conservative Members today, the Home Secretary and I will do everything we can to implement them.

Huge, vast population growth may be seen by out-of-touch bourgeois liberals as a quick fix for our economy, but what the vast majority of the public know is that it fuels a dependence on low-skilled labour, stultifying our economy over time. The ease of employing workers from overseas displaces investment in domestic skills, including the upskilling of the existing workforce, automation, better working practices and fair pay. The consequence is to inhibit productivity and damage British competitiveness.

More than that, it changes the places we call home beyond recognition. Unless the Government act quickly and decisively, we face the grim future of a weakened, uncompetitive economy and a fragmented disparate society robbed of any sense of shared belonging. The bulk of the public, regardless of their origins, know this. The Minister, gauged by his articulation of his excellent case today, clearly knows it. We know that the Home Secretary understands this too. It is time the whole of Government took back control.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the impact of immigration on population growth.

Sitting adjourned.