Imigration Policy

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Mrs. Roche indicated dissent.

Mr. Hughes: The Minister disagrees, but it must be the case. The system should also allow people legally to put forward their case for economic migration, and the sooner that that is possible, the better.

When we have a more common agreed European Union policy, I hope that it will take account of the natural ties and settlements. However, I qualify that by saying that there are additional rights and controls that the Government are right to continue to keep. Self-evidently, language often means that immigrants from some countries will be more likely to make their home and wish to work in certain European Union countries. People from Brazil would be more likely to go to Portugal. People from Commonwealth countries who are, in the main, English speakers, would be more likely to wish to come to the UK. People from the old French empire would be more likely to wish to go to France, and people from Zaire would wish to go to Belgium. I hope that any policy will build natural communities. We do not want to freeze ourselves by limiting ourselves to such countries—although the Commonwealth includes half the world, and each continent—but due account should be taken of natural ties, natural patterns of migration and natural communities. Whatever ends up as the policy should properly reflect the fact that it would be unreasonable to expect people to apply to countries that they did not wish to go to. All that would do would delay a further application to move from one country to the one that they wished to go to at the end of the day.

I welcome the debate, which has been good. The Minister and I have had our disagreements, but, over the past few months, the Government have become more enlightened on the matter, and have used more appropriate language and measured tones. They have further distanced themselves from the Tory party, which is welcome. I hope that they will continue in that more enlightened vein after the election, which may be in a few weeks' time, whether they are in government or opposition.

12.10 pm

Mr. Gerrard: I am glad to have the opportunity to make a contribution. A debate on immigration policy is long overdue in both the European Union and the UK. We probably have to go back to the Immigration Act 1971 for the previous time that the UK seriously debated the issue. Since then, there have been changes in the immigration rules, and we have had various debates about mechanisms. I served on the Standing Committees that considered the previous three immigration and asylum Bills, but there was remarkably little debate about policy. Everything was about mechanisms.

For 30 years, we have not really considered what the aims of our immigration policies should be. I therefore very much welcome the debate that has been stimulated both by the Minister and in the EU, which is now getting involved with the issue. It is an interesting coincidence that the 1971 Act came into force not in that year, but on 1 January 1973, the day on which we joined what was then called the common market. It has taken us that time to start to have a debate.

The paper has developed as the labour market and effects on the economy have been considered. Economic migration has taken place in the past 30 years, even in terms of family reunion. The hon. Member for Aylesbury talked about the right of British citizens to have their families join them here. However, that is not an absolute right. We have always applied economic tests, even to questions of family reunion. We have certainly applied economic tests to other people who wish to come to the UK through the work permit scheme or schemes for business men. Anyone with enough money to invest has been able to come here relatively freely for quite some time. However, we have not had systematic thoughts about how that should work. The situation has developed ad hoc, and sets of rules have been developed without thought for their consequences.

We now have these EU papers and EU competence as a result of Amsterdam and the discussions that have taken place since Tampere. Whether or not we feel that the UK should adopt every part of the EU's policy in this respect, it is clear that we cannot sit outside the debate. What happens in the EU will impact on us. Whether or not we decide at the end of the day to opt-in to every decision that is taken by the EU, we must be involved in the debate. Questions about which and how many people we allow to come here for the labour market are inevitably bound up with the EU, as there is a system of freedom of movement for citizens of the EU and the European Economic Area. Growing numbers of people also arrive through association agreements with countries that are not yet full members of the EU.

A number of questions were asked about the details of how we might implement schemes that relate to economic migration. I have doubts about what the impact will be on illegal immigration if all that we have are systems that admit only highly skilled and highly educated people. I therefore welcome what the Minister said about the need to think more broadly about the impact on seasonal workers or unskilled labour that might or might not be needed in future.

There is also the effect of remittances to home countries and the impact on them of people coming here as migrants. If we are honest, we will admit that our immigration policies will always be selfish to a degree. We will always think about what the impact of our immigration policies will be on us, but the impact on the countries from which migrants have come is also important. Pulling away skilled and educated labour that is in short supply can be damaging. The debate should not be about mechanisms alone; we should assess the impact on the countries concerned.

I mentioned earlier that we should make the best possible use of the skills available here. For the first time last year, the Government commendably published a paper that dealt with the integration of recognised refugees and referred to the skills base that could be used. At some stage we will have to decide what should be done with people who have been working here illegally for some time and are unlikely to be removed from the country. As well as bringing such people into legality, we need to assess how best to use their skills.

I also mentioned earlier the issue of mobility and the expansion of the EU. The Commission's paper does not properly deal with overall labour mobility. Since freedom of movement within the EU has been allowed, the extent of labour mobility across national boundaries has been relatively small and it has mainly involved relatively highly skilled people. We have not seen significant internal movement of unskilled labour within the EU. It has happened, but not to a large extent.

Questions must be asked about what will happen when the EU expands eastwards. The document is about people from non-EU countries migrating into the EU, but if we consider the wider aspects of labour markets and migration, the eastern expansion becomes important. Countries from which we currently have illegal migrants will be brought into the EU. Some of those countries demand the movement of labour, which might change the patterns of internal movement within the EU and impact on what should be done about external migration.

The paper is right to say that migratory pressures will continue: it is inevitable, and the ease of worldwide travel nowadays will exacerbate those pressures. We are at the beginning of an important and detailed debate. I am glad that the Government have stimulated the debate in Europe. We may not want to adopt every dot and comma of the EU's policies, but it is vital for us to be in there influencing the debate, as it will certainly influence us.

12.18 pm

Mrs. Roche: This has been an interesting debate and I should like to deal briefly with some of the issues--I am aware that the Committee has probably heard quite enough of me this morning.

I thank the hon. Member for Aylesbury for his comments on the migration research document. I will ensure that my officials are aware of the hon. Gentleman's generous remarks. I agree that it is a remarkably good piece of work, which draws together several sources, some for the first time, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I assure him that our permanent representative to the European Union, the gloriously named UKREP, especially the section that deals with justice and home affairs matters, is fully engaged in the process. All proposals will receive the appropriate scrutiny of the House and the other place; we will use the system of explanatory memorandums to inform the Committee and the House of the progress of such matters.

I agree with the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North: this country is a nation of migrants and always has been. There is a popular belief that immigration started with the Jewish community or with the Huguenots, but it goes back for centuries before that, as anyone who saw Simon Schama's excellent programme ``The History of Britain,'' or read the book, will know, and we are much the better for it.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey asked about our difference with the European Commission. The Heads of Government agreed, quite rightly, at Tampere that third country nationals legally resident in EU states should be accorded proper rights and treatment, which we enthusiastically supported. However, we have difficulties with the proposition that third country nationals legally resident in one country should have the right of residence in another EU country. We believe that they have to satisfy the immigration policies of the individual states.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey referred briefly to asylum. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will endorse what I say, that under the convention, there is no obligation on any member state to facilitate the making of an asylum application. It is inaccurate that we are in breach of the convention. However, in speeches in London and last year in Lisbon, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary drew attention to the way in which the convention operates in the modern age. He raised the possibility of making applications in the regions and of considering how the convention operates in an age that those who framed it in 1951 could not have envisaged. As we approach the 50th anniversary, it is appropriate to have the debate, which was initiated by the UNHCR.

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the separation of migration and asylum. A good reason for their being separate is that asylum is a precious and fundamental right. If asylum is not ring fenced as a fundamental right to claim protection from persecution, the right itself is undermined.

I turn to the characteristically thoughtful remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, who has considerable knowledge of the subject. I agree with him that we have rarely debated the general themes of immigration and migration policy, although we have discussed specific pieces of legislation.

I became something of a migration bore while I was preparing for my September speech. As I was on holiday while I was writing the speech, I had time to undertake background research. The debate on the issue can be traced back to the Aliens Act 1905, and perhaps beyond.

Although the House has debated individual pieces of legislation on immigration, neither it, nor the country, has properly debated migration, especially in relation to our nation's needs. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a complex issue that requires a number of matters to be considered. The hon. Member for Aylesbury also alluded to that point. It is, for instance, particularly important to hold discussions with source countries.

I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow about the national refugee integration strategy. We published the document in November 2000, and we subsequently set up a national strategy implementation group, which I chair. It meets not only in London, but elsewhere too, and it has made substantial progress by dealing with practical issues that need to be tackled.

This has been an important discussion. I believe that the debate on immigration should not only focus on the important matter of dealing with illegal immigration. It should also focus on supporting appropriate opportunities, when they are in the economic and general national interest, for legal migration into a diverse and tolerant society.

Question accordingly agreed to.


    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.

        Committee rose at twenty-seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Gale, Mr. (Chairman)
Clark, Mr. Paul
Gordon, Mrs.
Griffiths, Jane
Hopkins, Mr.
Rammell, Mr.
Ross, Mr. William
Whitney, Sir Raymond
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(2):
Corbett, Mr. Robin (Birmingham, Erdington)
Gerrard, Mr. Neil (Walthamstow)
Hughes, Mr. Simon (Southwark, North and
Bermondsey)Levitt, Mr. Tom (High Peak)
Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury)
Roche, Mrs. Barbara (Minister of State, Home Office)

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Prepared 25 April 2001