Imigration Policy

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Mr. Hopkins: I shall be brief. The terms of the motion before us today are appropriate. I will be happy to support to them. The immigration and migration arrangements of the United Kingdom and other member states have distinctive features. Earlier, I mentioned birth rates. Some countries such as Italy, Spain and Germany have plummeting birth rates and migration will be appropriate for population replacement just to keep their economies going. The position may not be the same here. There are reasons for migration that are beneficial to the states themselves.

We have set on one side the humanitarian case of genuine asylum seekers. That clearly must be sustained. We cannot condemn people to death, torture or victimisation because we do not allow them into our country. We are not talking about them this morning, although we will be doing so next week. Migration has always occurred. It has been beneficial to our economy over the centuries and has made us an interesting and dynamic place to live. Everyone in this room is descended from people who migrated—often illegally, as part of an invasion. The Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans all came here. My ancestors were not legal migrants, but warriors who settled here and said, ``We'll have a bit of that, thank you very much.'' We are descended from robbers and invaders. Hopefully, we have now become more civilised. Since then, we have had migrations of people fleeing from persecution, such as the Huguenots and the Jews. People have come here from Ireland who had fled from death and starvation and, more recently, we have had immigration from the Asian sub-continent, the West Indies, Africa and elsewhere.

I am privileged to represent a multicultural, multiracial constituency, which has benefited from significant migration over the past 50 years. It is a very interesting place and I am delighted to be its Member of Parliament. Such migration has been exciting; it has made us more conscious of being part of a wider humanity. Clearly, immigration policies are necessary and appropriate. By and large, our system is working much better as a result of the Government putting more resources into the Home Office in particular to regulate immigration and to bring forward the enormous backlog of bureaucracy that existed when they came into office. There is a long way to go, but things have improved considerably.

As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, when considering desirable migration we should look not only at highly skilled people. Encouraging people to migrate to take up employment in lower-skilled jobs should not be used as an excuse to pay lower wages. It may be low pay, rather than a lack of people to do the work, which is the cause of a shortage of hospital cleaners. We have made a start with the minimum wage, but we have a good way to go to raise it to the level that we would expect to see elsewhere in the European Union. We should not use migrants as a way in which to undermine pay levels and deliberately ask people to come here to work for poor pay.

I look forward to a steady migration in the future. It is only recently that we have had net immigration. For a long time we had net emigration. I have said that many times in political discussions, especially to those who are uncomfortable about people coming from overseas to live and work in Britain. For many years, more people were leaving the country than entering it. We now have a multicultural society that has made this country a much more interesting and exciting place. The relatively grey monocultural society in which I lived when I was a child has now disappeared. In my constituency, I can eat food from all over the world, listen to a dozen different languages and meet people with tremendous ideas from different parts of the world.

The wording of the motion is about right, given that, like those of other member states, our migration arrangements and our economic and social position have distinctive features. It preserves the British qualification. That is right and will probably continue for a considerable time. We in the European Union are neither socially nor economically homogeneous and, with the enlargement of the Community, we will become more diverse economically. I welcome the specific terms of the motion and I am happy to support it.

11.59 am

Mr. Simon Hughes: This is the first time that I have been a member of a European Standing Committee, which is surprising for a pro-European like me. I hope that the Committee supports the motion. I entirely agree with it. There is a reasonable case for having no immigration controls. They are a relatively recent invention. People from this country used to travel all around the world. When they came back, they would go down the Old Kent road, trade and sell their wares. There were no passport controls, and the world used to do well by it. We should not therefore presume that there will always be immigration controls. Indeed, the difficulty of enforcing them, with which we all have to grapple, is one of the strong arguments against having them. We might have two different kinds of status—those who are nationals of a country and have passports, and those who have a different status with different civic rights. We have not reached that point yet, however, and we need to have a debate about whether it is the right conclusion. I am not persuaded that it is the right conclusion, but it should be an option on the agenda. We should keep it in mind that that is how the world used to work, and the world might be better if we returned to that position.

In the meantime, it is sensible to do two things, which are the two key elements of the case that the Minister put to the Committee. First, we must welcome and take part in the debate initiated by the European Union about having, as far as possible, a common and integrated policy. There must be merit in that—the Minister referred to many of the reasons why it is sensible.

In general terms, European countries have similarly low birth rates. I understand that Portugal, for example, has a particular demographic problem. It has always seemed to me a paradox that Italy, which has a higher percentage of Roman Catholics than any other European country, has the lowest birth rate. Either the Italians are extremely self-disciplined—which is not my experience of them—or they all disobey the Pope, which seems much more likely. Although they sign up to the faith in one respect, they seem to have an opt-out clause in their personal life, which allows them to keep the birth rate down. Generally, there is a low birth rate, and there are huge needs in terms of skills, to which the Minister referred. Therefore, having such a debate would seem sensible.

Secondly, it seems sensible—and this puts me in a different position from some of my more European-integrationist colleagues—for the UK to retain its own controls. We are an island country—or a set of islands—and we have the natural opportunity of being more able to regulate our borders than other countries. For the time being, it seems right to maintain that rather than get rid of it. It would be controversial and difficult for the Government to argue a case for getting rid of those rights.

The country seems to understand the argument for more immigration. Those who argue against immigration seem to forget how many people from this country have gone to other parts of the world as economic migrants. Huge numbers have gone to the empire or the Commonwealth—which constitutes about half the world—assuming that they will be able to go and work in Canada, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand. People assume that they can happily settle in other EU countries after retirement, but they become nervous about other people exercising the same economic migration opportunities here. People who say, ``It's fine for me to better myself, for my daughter and son-in-law to go and live in Australia, and for my family to make their home where the weather, prospects and economic situation are better, but it is not good for people to come here,'' are very selfish and biased. I spend a lot of time challenging that view in my constituency and elsewhere when people argue it and forget, as the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) said, not only the benefits of immigration, but the opportunities that emigration has presented to many of our people, who have also remitted money home over the years.

In the light of the comments made by the Government and the Minister in seeking clarification of the proposal, which is supported as a subject for proper debate by my colleagues in the European Parliament and elsewhere and in other parties in the European Union, we need to have a constructive debate with the countries of origin and transit. It is no good having a European view that could easily become a fortress Europe view, without ensuring that it reflects the needs and aspirations of the countries from which people come.

I turn now to the second issue, which concerns the core rights for long-resident third country nationals—the slightly ambiguous civic citizenship concept. Like the Minister, I think that it needs to be fleshed out, but in general, those who are not passport holders or nationals should have a status that gives them certain entitlements that are easily understood.

The Minister, like me and every other member of the Committee, may have done a bit of canvassing over recent weeks, and discovered people who are registered to vote but are not registered to vote in UK elections because they are EU nationals and in a different category. Their status allows them to be in the country, and some have been here, as foreign nationals, for 25 years. They may be married to a British citizen and have not decided to take British citizenship. I met an American on Saturday night who has been in the country for more than 25 years but who has decided, on balance, to keep his American citizenship. There is a benefit in giving a status to such people that makes their rights and responsibilities clear.

I am slightly confused by the third area in which the Government say that they will seek clarification. That is the

    ``difficulty with proposals that granted rights of residence for such persons in other Member States.''

I do not understand what the Government are getting at, and it would be helpful for the Minister to amplify the matter.

I pick up on the point of dealing with illegal migration, which was made in the Commission's conclusions and mentioned by the Minister. Of course, if we have an immigration policy, there must be an enforcement mechanism, and we must ensure that it works. However, a reason for the debate—one on which I think that the Minister and I share common ground—is that it is clear that some people who seek to enter this country by making a case for asylum would rather make a case for economic migration. We should not be naive about that. In reality, we must have a system that makes it possible for people to make their case in the country that they happen to be in. That case may be humanitarian, for a family reunion, for economic migration or for asylum. People will need assistance to decide what is appropriate and what works for them. I am frustrated that we do not have a proper system in which it is possible to seek asylum legally in this country—that is why I encourage the Government to make progress on the matter. The Minister has previously heard me say that I believe that we are breaking our international obligations by not having a method by which an asylum seeker can legally come here and seek asylum. The Government are clearly in breach of the convention.

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