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18 Mar 2003 : Column 911—continued

18 Mar 2003 : Column 912

Immigration Statistics

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

10.29 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) rose—

Hon. Members: Speak for England!

Mr. Soames: I shall try.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to return to a matter of great domestic importance. I want to start by making three points absolutely clear. First, I have nothing whatever against genuine refugees and immigrants, many of whom have greatly enriched and enhanced our national life. They deserve to be welcomed and given shelter. Unfortunately, our ability to welcome them is hampered by large numbers of applicants whose cases do not succeed—to put it mildly. Last year, nearly 100,000 people were refused both asylum and exceptional leave to remain, yet there were only 11,500 removals, or so-called voluntary returns. I shall go back to that point later on.

Secondly, I want to make it clear that the debate is, above all, not a question of race but of realism. The number of immigrants to Britain is now so great as to have a profoundly major impact on our society, especially in the south-east. Schools, housing and hospitals are coming under intense pressure. Indeed, that is acknowledged by the Government.

Thirdly, I want to make it plain to the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, that I have no history or form on this matter. Indeed, I consider myself to be a largely tolerant, compassionate, old-fashioned, one-nation Tory. I always have been and I always will be. However, like many others, I am truly concerned about the lack of proper information on an issue of the first importance. The conspiracy of silence about immigration, which has lasted for a generation, must end. It is my ambition that immigration should become as respectable a subject for debate as any other.

I make no apology for focusing on numbers. This is in no sense a game; it is deadly serious and we need proper, accurate and truthful figures. The sheer scale of immigration, which has more than doubled under the Labour Government, causes widespread and understandable concern throughout the country. Of course, numbers are not everything. Each statistic is a human story—sometimes a tragic one. We constantly ask the British people to be both tolerant and inclusive, but it is high time that we told them what they are being asked to tolerate and include.

I want to consider first the overall picture on immigration and then the related question of asylum seekers, who may make up half the total. My starting point is a letter to me from the official statistician dated 27 January 2003, which gives net non-European Union immigration for the past 10 years, revised in the light of the recent census. The number given for 2001 is 178,000. The rate of increase is alarming. Net non-EU immigration has more than doubled under the Government; it has gone up by no less than five times in the past 10 years.

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If present trends continue, the number will be at least 2 million over the next 10 years. Furthermore, there is no end in sight, as the existing immigrant community brings in wives and relatives from overseas. If that number is wrong, the Government need to tell us why.

Will the number fall or could it even rise? Three decisions taken by the Government suggest that it will rise substantially. First, the abolition of the primary purpose rule has already resulted in a significant increase in the acceptance for settlement of husbands and wives. In 2001, that amounted to 46 per cent. of all settlement. There is also an important matter of longer-term significance. The abolition of that apparently obscure rule means that we face the prospect of unlimited secondary immigration.

Secondly, the Government have announced a massive increase in work permits, from about 30,000 a year in the 1980s and early '90s to a target of 200,000 in the coming year. That will add substantially to the immigration total, as workers coming to the end of their permit apply for settlement. A recent study by Migration Watch UK suggests that the increase in work permits alone could lead to additional settlement of up to 70,000 workers a year in four years' time.

Thirdly, the Government's decision—alone among the major EU states—to open our labour market to workers from eastern Europe immediately on their accession to the EU is bound to lead to a significant additional flow.

I want to turn now to one of the major components of immigration—asylum seekers. Only rough estimates are possible. If the Home Office had proper statistics, we could be more accurate, but the order of magnitude is as clear as a bell. That makes nonsense of our border controls and is, of course, a major pull factor in drawing yet more asylum seekers to Britain. It is therefore no surprise that they are arriving in record numbers—110,700 last year, up 20 per cent. on the previous year. In the same year, Holland achieved a 42 per cent. reduction and Denmark 51 per cent.

Lastly, I want to turn to illegal immigration, which, as the Home Secretary recognises, is additional to the totals that I have mentioned so far. One significant source is students and visitors who overstay. Of course most of them go back, but the numbers involved are very large indeed. Roughly 3.5 million students and visitors come to this country every year just from eastern Europe and the third world. If only 1 per cent. of them were to stay behind, it would amount to 35,000 a year. The evidence is only anecdotal, but it is certainly abundant. If that number is too high, let the Government make their own estimate and let us know.

One major loophole, regrettably created by our Government, is the absence of embarkation controls for non-EU citizens leaving the country. That is an invitation for all comers to overstay. I understand that the Minister is considering reinstating the recording of departures of non-EU citizens. That is now a matter of urgency. The Government must press ahead and get that matter dealt with.

A further source of illegal immigrants is clandestine arrival, often by truck and sometimes with the most tragic and often very regrettable results. They

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immediately claim asylum and, as I have described, have every chance of remaining in Britain, legally or otherwise. Again, what is the Government's estimate for clandestine arrivals? Without such an estimate, we cannot even guess at the total figures. It follows from what I have said that the best estimate of total non-EU foreign immigration over the next decade is of the order of 2 million, and probably more in subsequent decades.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): My hon. Friend may not have noticed, but the Minister just shook her head. Does he not agree that it is absolutely vital that we have accurate statistics? If the Government cannot provide us with estimates of the numbers of overstayers and illegal entrants, it will be impossible to get to that accurate number, without which it is difficult to have a debate. Will he join me in asking the Minister not to shake her head, but perhaps to promise to provide some estimates, so that we can have some figures on which to have a reasonable debate?

Mr. Soames: I will indeed, and I wholly endorse the point that my hon. Friend makes. I congratulate the work that he and others who serve on the Select Committee on Home Affairs have done on this matter.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I can assure my hon. Friend that, at a seminar that I attended in Oxford addressed by Baroness Scotland, the figure of 2 million for settlement over the next 10 years was the one that she herself proposed on behalf of the Government.

Mr. Soames: That is very helpful, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said, we require confirmation and firm figures to be able to have a proper and sensible debate about this sensitive but very important matter. There may be some argument about the detail, but there is hardly any scope to deny that we face massive immigration on a scale never before seen in this country.

The pressure on public services, schools, housing, transport and the health service is already intense, particularly in the south-east, where the infrastructure is already dangerously overstretched. In my view, that pressure cannot be allowed to continue without a full and serious debate about the consequences for our society. The decisions to be taken may well be difficult, but doing nothing is simply not an option. Public confidence in the asylum and immigration system is at an all-time low. That is a matter that I, and the Minister, will deeply regret. It is therefore essential that we have clear and accurate information on which we can base a sensible debate.

Specifically, I invite the Minister—I know that she will write to me, as I do not expect her to be able to answer these questions immediately—to answer the following points. What is the Government's latest estimate of net non-EU foreign immigration in each of the last 10 years? What are her predictions for the future? What is the Government's estimate of the size of the illegal work force in Britain? What is their estimate of the scale of illegal immigration into Britain every year? What is their most recent estimate of the population of the UK in 2020 and 2050, and on what level of immigration is that based?

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A Home Office research paper, RDS No. 82, has recently admitted that 1.5 million migrants arrived in Britain over the last decade. The nature of our society is clearly changing before our eyes. In a recent MORI poll, 57 per cent. expressed concern that Britain is losing its culture. I do not believe that those concerns can be tossed aside lightly. The British people have a right to be told how many more immigrants are expected to arrive over the next 10 years, and how the Government propose to deal with them.

For my part, I call on the Government to take serious measures to bring the situation under control. For a start, they should redouble their present feeble efforts to remove failed asylum seekers. Secondly, they should reintroduce embarkation controls for non-EU citizens. Thirdly, they should cut back on the huge number of work permits now being issued with only the flimsiest of controls. Fourthly, they should review the controls concerning marriage and immigration, which are now wide open to abuse. Fifthly, they should conduct a fundamental review of the legal framework that is preventing us from dealing with asylum seekers swiftly, and, therefore, humanely.

Above all, the Government need a policy: a policy that can be explained to the British people. They are seeking simultaneously to halve asylum seekers and to more than quadruple work permits. They are spending millions to keep economic migrants out while opening our labour market immediately on accession to the east Europeans. The Home Office apparently claims that it has no view on the desirable level of immigration. It is time that they took such a view. Will the Minister say how many people the Government want in this country overall?

To conclude, importantly, I want to emphasise that I am not anti-immigration. Every modern economy will have quite high levels of both immigration and emigration. My concern is that a pattern seems to be developing of a significant net migration into this country. We do not seem to be able to have accurate and proper figures, however, and public anxiety continues to mount. My message to the Government is simple: give us the real figures, let us have an honourable and frank debate, let us discuss the matter with our constituents in an open, frank and sensible way, and then let us try to come to a settled view of what should be the right level of immigration. That is not an unreasonable request, and I look forward to a considered reply from the Minister.

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