Imigration Policy

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Mr. Lidington: On page 16 of the communication, the Commission suggests that member states should adopt a system of indicative targets for economic migration. Are the Government happy with that in principle?

Mrs. Roche: The Commission says that there should be no EU targets. We agree that what member states do is entirely up to them. Although the Commission spoke about indicative targets, it did not flesh that out to any extent. It will be interesting to see what they are. I know of targets in only one area: our seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which we recently extended, in line with what important bodies such as the National Farmers Union were pressing for. That is not primarily an employment scheme but gives young people the opportunity for work experience and cultural exchange. We do not have a tradition of numbers or targets. There are no numbers attached to the work permit scheme, for example. Other countries, such as Canada, have quotas or targets. One could examine that issue in the wide debate that I have called for, but it has not been part of our experience in the UK.

Mr. Lidington: In their thinking on the development of policy, do the Government see the right of British citizens to have spouses, fiancees and dependent relatives join them in this country as something that is not for negotiation? Would economic migration be in addition to people who have come here lawfully for family reasons or are the Government prepared to reconsider the right of British citizens to have their families join them?

Mrs. Roche: I am not sure to what the hon. Gentleman is referring. Not only British citizens but those who are legally settled here have the right to apply to have spouses join them. They need to comply with the current rules, under which they must satisfy tests that their marriage is valid and conform to the maintenance and accommodation tests. There is no intention to alter that in any way.

Mr. Lidington: Perhaps I can rephrase my question to make it clearer.

It has been argued in some quarters—not by me—that we should replace the system whereby most immigration settlement consists of family members with a system that considers the economic benefit that a potential immigrant could bring to this country; and that the rights that citizens now have, subject to the tests that the Minister described, should not have such an important place in the immigration system. Do the Government believe that allowing families to come here is core to our system and not open for negotiation, or are they prepared to examine whether that system might be replaced by one based on the economic benefit that could accrue to this country?

Mrs. Roche: I assure the hon. Gentleman that that issue is completely separate from our debate on immigration today. I hope that that assists him.

Mr. Gerrard: One of the driving forces behind the Commission's paper is its view of the labour market in the EU. How will that labour market be affected by the eastward expansion of the EU? My hon. Friend the Member for Erdington spoke about illegal immigration. Some of it originates in states that will fairly shortly become EU members.

Mrs. Roche: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Enlargement and the labour force changes that are taking place within the EU add to the complexity of the debate. I apologise to the Committee for coming back to this again and again: we need a grown-up debate about the issue, conducted on the basis of proper research. That is what we call for. The issue that he raised is very much part of the equation and something that we must bear in mind.

Mr. Lidington: There is a proposal on page 17 of the communication that European legislation should provide for a

    ``flexible overall scheme based on a limited number of statuses''.

Does the Minister agree that that proposal implies the imposition of a European legislative framework for rights of entry and residence on individual member states, which presumably would override any national arrangements that are currently in place? What is the Government's attitude to that proposal?

Mrs. Roche: Because of the opt-out, we are in the happy position of being able to decide whether to opt into proposals. The proposal mentioned by the hon. Gentleman is at such a green stage that it would be difficult to evaluate its significance, but we will examine any proposal or draft directive that emerges. Once again, I assure him that our overwhelming priority and objective is to retain control of our borders and immigration policy.

Mr. Lidington: The document contains several references to the charter of fundamental rights. To me, the most important is on page 19. It states that the charter

    ``could provide a reference for the development of the concept of civic citizenship in a particular Member State''.

What do the Government think that that means?

Mrs. Roche: That is an interesting question. As I told the House of Lords, we are not quite sure what it means; we are seeking clarification. It may be that the Commission regards it as a milestone on the way to citizenship. The United Kingdom's experience is that if someone qualifies for indefinite leave to remain and is thinking about citizenship, that should be encouraged. A key issue that I have no more than floated is that we should celebrate the acquisition of British citizenship more. Achieving citizenship is regarded as an important occasion in the United States or Canada, whereas in the United Kingdom, a piece of paper arrives through the post. However, the question of celebrating the acquisition of citizenship is at a very green stage and is open for debate.

Mr. Lidington: What is the need for any reference to the charter of fundamental rights if that charter simply declares rights that already exist by virtue of the European convention on human rights and domestic legislation? Why should the charter of fundamental rights be involved in any concept of citizenship, or in legislation to provide for citizenship? Why not rest on what we already have?

Mrs. Roche: I hear the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. However, I am in the happy position of not having written the document—it is not a Government document. We must remember that we are dealing with different member states and different traditions.

I refer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). I welcome his contribution to this very much preparatory instrument. The United Kingdom has a tradition whereby those who have been working here under the work permit system can get reasonably early access to indefinite leave to remain and then to citizenship. Other countries have employed the concept of guest workers. It may well be that the reference is to that concept of civic citizenship. I am not sure that that has the same resonance in the British context, which is why, as I told the Lords, we are not sure precisely what it means, but we will seek clarification from the Commission.

Mr. Lidington: Does not the reference in fact suggest that, despite all the Government's assurances that the charter is no more than declaratory, the Commission and other member states believe that the charter is actually an important foundation for activity and legislation, and is justiciable before the European court?

Mrs. Roche: No, it does not mean that at all.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 11529/00, a Commission Communication on a Community immigration policy; and supports the Government's active participation in the debate on the Communication and the Government's intention to ensure that the UK's immigration policies are broadly in line with those of other Member States, whilst retaining domestic control over immigration policy and avoiding measures that could undermine the integrity of the UK's frontier controls.—[Mrs. Roche]

11.28 am

Mr. Lidington: I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Gale.

We covered much of the detailed ground during questions, so I will try to keep my comments brief. Like the Minister, I found the Commission's communication a useful peg on which to hang a debate about immigration policy. I draw the Committee's attention to an even better paper entitled ``Migration and Economic and Social Analysis'' which was prepared by the Home Office's research department. Although I did not agree with every statement therein, I found it a helpful introduction to the subject as it contained a lot of useful information and ideas. I hope that the Minister will commend her officials on that work.

The debate raises two important and intertwined issues: first, whether there should be a common European immigration policy; and secondly, whether—either in the European or the national context—there is a strong case for making significant changes to the immigration regime that we in the United Kingdom have operated for many years so as to allow more economic migrants lawfully to come to this country, either as temporary workers or with rights eventually to settle. I shall take those two aspects of the debate in order.

I am sceptical and cautious about the case for a common European immigration policy. I have always understood why there is a strong demand on the continent of Europe for such a policy and why that led to the negotiation of the Schengen agreement and is now leading to developments such as those outlined in the communication. On the Franco-German border—or, in future, on the border between Germany and Poland—it is not possible to control immigration through border checks in the way to which we in the United Kingdom are accustomed. Our geography, and, to some extent our history, enables us to exercise border control in a more effective manner than is possible in continental countries in which long land frontiers are criss-crossed by many different road and rail routes, making it easy for people to slip on foot or by vehicle from one country to another. In Alsace or the Rhineland of Germany, which borders France, we find people who for many years have been accustomed to go on shopping trips across a national frontier. On much of the continent, the debate is different in character from that which we in the United Kingdom tend to have.

I am not opposed to other European countries forging ahead with a common system of immigration control if that is what they judge to be in their best national interest, but I hope that the UK Government will conduct cautious and sceptical scrutiny of any proposals that come from the Commission and are discussed in the Council to implement such a policy, and that they will hesitate long and hard before deciding that the United Kingdom should opt into particular policies.

My views on the matter are summed up by the paragraph that my noble Friend Baroness Young sought to include in the House of Lords Select Committee report:

    ``The United Kingdom, because of its geographical position, is particularly well placed to maintain an autonomous and effective admissions policy.''

Community institutions are not accountable—their members cannot be sacked in the same way that members of this Committee can be sacked by our electorates should they disagree with our decisions. If Community institutions start to take responsibility for issues such as admissions policy, cultural identity and the ways in which migrants are integrated into different nation states, we could end up with a European blueprint that takes no account of the reality of national identity and loyalty. Quite inadvertently, we could end up with Community decisions that add fuel to political extremism of the sort that, regrettably, we have seen in many western European countries over the past few years.

I am a sceptic about the need for a common immigration policy. Clear assumptions seem to run through the document suggesting that a common European legislative framework to govern immigration is the natural order of things. During our question time I referred to particular examples of that—the idea of indicative targets, and of a legislative scheme for third-country nationals based on a limited number of statuses that would be defined in European rather than national law. I am in favour of sensible co-operation between the United Kingdom and other European countries to establish an effective and fair system of immigration control. However, I am afraid that the tenor of the communication takes us further towards a centrally driven, pan-European immigration policy, which is something I hoped the British Government would resist.

If I have a criticism of the Minister's response to some of the questions, it is that she took too much of a hands-off approach, which seemed to say, ``We in Britain wait to see what comes up in terms of a detailed proposal from the Commission before we decide to opt in or out''. At the end of the day, that is the legal position of the UK—at least for the moment. However, in practice, the Minister does not wait for a proposal to emerge in its finished form. We have a permanent representation in Brussels that is in day-to-day contact with the relevant directorates-general of the Commission, and with the Commissioners responsible for the development of policy. We have embassies in each of the other member state capitals. At official level, Whitehall Departments are, surely, already aware of the drift of thinking within the Commission, as Commission officials prepare more detailed papers for discussion later this year. If we look towards the end of the communication, on page 23, we find that it is proposed

    ``that the results of this debate be discussed at a conference to be held under the Belgian Presidency in the second half of 2001 and that the conclusions of this conference be''

discussed by the

    ``Council at its meeting in Brussels at the end of 2001.''

The Brussels meeting will also consider

    ``a mid-term review of the implementation of the Tampere programme.''

The Minister was a bit insouciant in not taking account of the timetable that was set at Vienna and at Tampere—a five-year timetable which runs out in the middle of 2004, which the Commission and a number of member states will be keen to see implemented within the allotted time. We are debating this matter towards the end of April, and it looks as though the results of the debate that the communication is intended to initiate are due to be discussed under the Belgian presidency either in July this year, or later in September. We are talking about only a few months within which the Commission will suggest rather more detailed proposals. It is not unreasonable to ask the Government for a rather more detailed account of their thinking about some of the ideas floated in the communication than the Minister has been prepared to provide us with this morning.

A general proposition about economic migration lies at the heart of both the Commission paper and the Home Office research paper. I agree with the analysis in both papers, in that the pressures for international migration will not simply disappear. Pull factors are clearly involved and are dependent on the policies pursued by individual countries, which we have had many opportunities to debate, and to which the Select Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington referred in its recent report on United Kingdom border controls.

The spread of knowledge about the world in which we live through television and radio, which enables people in relatively poor countries to know about life in rich and more secure countries; the availability of relatively cheap intercontinental air travel; the involvement of organised crime in the trafficking of people; and the globalisation of the world economy mean that migratory pressures will continue for the foreseeable future. All Governments, regardless of political stripe, will have to grapple with those pressures.

I am not yet persuaded that the economic pressures on the United Kingdom mean that we should consider a significant relaxation of our system of immigration control. It is a misnomer to call what we have had for the past couple of decades zero immigration. We have had immigration control, but immigration has been nothing like zero. The most recent Home Office statistical bulletin on immigration, which gives figures for the calendar year 1999, shows that a total of 97,120 people were accepted for settlement in the United Kingdom, the greatest proportion of whom—more than 65,000—were the spouses and dependants of British nationals. More than 22,000 people were accepted here because they had been awarded refugee status or granted exceptional leave to remain, and about 8,000 settlement cases could be described as work related, most of which involved people who had been here on work permits for four years or more.

In addition to those nearly 100,000 people accepted for settlement, in 1999, 76,000 people were allowed to come here with a work permit to fulfil a particular economic need, and just over 15,000 people were entitled to come here under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. If we add to that students and visitors, we are not discussing zero immigration. In considering whether more people are needed here to fulfil economic needs, we need to bear in mind that context of what is going on at present.

The argument for greater economic migration stems from two quarters: first, from business people, especially those in information technology, who say that there is a specific skill shortage at present. Such shortages can often be remedied by the effective use of work permits to bring people in temporarily until the domestic market adjusts to the requirements. Secondly—it may be a longer-term need—there is a demand for people from abroad to take up relatively low-paid and unskilled work. In the south-east of England, the national health service relies heavily on nurses who have been allowed to come here from third-world countries to fill skills shortages.

At the Stoke Mandeville hospital in my constituency there has been substantial recruitment of nurses from the Philippines recently, and the same is true at Wycombe general hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Sir R. Whitney). That is not a bad thing, but the work permit scheme needs to be kept under review. I shall be interested in the Government's analysis of recent changes to the scheme, which will show how those changes are working in practice. I am not persuaded that there is a case for going further than ensuring that the employer-driven scheme is flexible and can keep up to date with movements in our economy.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) raised a subject that is relevant to the debate—the forthcoming enlargement of the European Union. Under the treaty of Rome, there is already complete freedom for anyone from one EU country to move to another EU country to take up work. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, a fair number of people working in this country illegally come from eastern European countries that are candidate members of the European Union. If Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic come into the EU within the next few years, presumably their citizens will be entitled to work here lawfully as a result of their treaty rights. If that happens, does it not weaken the case for a further relaxation of immigration control, as those with treaty rights will be able to take up the slack in the British economy—as large numbers of them do unlawfully at present?

On illegal immigration, the Commission communication made the point that it is an essential concomitant of a sensible immigration policy—the Commission wants a more liberal immigration policy—that effective action should be taken against people who come into the European Union or the United Kingdom unlawfully. This country has always relied on port checks as the prime means of immigration control. The Home Office statistical bulletin states that in 1999 just under 23,000 people were the subject of enforcement action and only 6,400 were known to have left the United Kingdom in that year as a result of such action. Although I concede that more than 6,400 people may have departed voluntarily rather than waiting for enforcement action, we are still looking at small numbers compared with the various estimates from the Immigration Service Union and others about the number of people who either enter the United Kingdom unlawfully or overstay.

One of the points that continental politicians make repeatedly is that we in Britain should copy them in imposing greater internal checks—whether by identity or entitlement cards or whatever. They believe that we should make greater use of what they see as a natural and essential part of their system of immigration control. While I welcome the Minister's comments on that subject, pressure from Europe for us to conform to the pattern of internal controls is bound to increase. If we have a genuine common European immigration policy, governed by European legislation, the pressure on the United Kingdom to conform will get ever greater.

I am sceptical about the need for both a common community immigration policy in the way that is implied by the Commission communication and a significant relaxation in our domestic immigration controls for economic reasons.

I welcome this debate. I hope that the Minister can give the Committee an undertaking that there will be full parliamentary scrutiny of the proposals that emerge from the Commission before the British Government bind themselves to opt in to measures that could have a significant impact on our system of immigration control.

11.52 am

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