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18 Mar 2003 : Column 915—continued

10.43 pm

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): I hope that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) will agree—I think that his basic premise accepts this—that any responsible Government positioning their country for economic growth and prosperity must consider their policy on migration with a view to maximising the considerable benefits that migration offers, while, at the same time, minimising the challenges that that presents. We are trying to implement a fair and balanced immigration policy that aims first—I make no apologies for this—to open up routes for regulated migration to support our economic needs; secondly, to do more both domestically and internationally to help refugees; and thirdly, to tackle abuse in the asylum system and illegal immigration.

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The hon. Gentleman spoke to me briefly before the debate and said that his main concern was to get accurate figures, but having heard his comments I find it hard to accept that that is his basic premise. He seemed to say that immigration is a bad thing. [Interruption.] If hon. Members read the Official Report tomorrow, they will see that his speech was almost wholly concerned with his view that the scale of immigration is too high. He criticised the extension of work permits, a method of entry that is determined not by the Government, but by employers who apply for them when they cannot employ people from the indigenous population. He also criticised our decision to allow people from accession countries to come here to work even though they are not dependent on the state. Indeed, he criticised anyone who might come here to support our economy.

The Government recognise that migration is part and parcel of the modern world. We need to welcome its considerable benefits but, at the same time, be determined to manage it effectively, and to safeguard national security and the economic and social well-being of this country. [Interruption.] With respect to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), I disagree with him about the main message delivered by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. He may dress it up another way, but that is not what his hon. Friend said.

Migrants contribute to our culture and society. They bring a range of backgrounds, cultures and faiths, which is one of the positive hallmarks of life in Britain in the 21st century. We are determined to pursue a balanced immigration policy. Part of that is about having sensible, appropriate ways for people to come here to work legally in ways that boost our economy. That is not an alternative to developing the skills and employment opportunities of our existing population, but rather a complement to ongoing work to achieve that.

International migration is likely to continue now and in the longer term. It will have important social and economic impacts—I recognise what the hon. Gentleman said about that—including on work force size and composition, the demand for housing and education, and the provision of social services. I agree that statistics on international migration are important. It is important that they are as accurate as possible. He knows that the statistics on international migration are produced by the Office for National Statistics, and statistics on the control of immigration and asylum produced by the Home Office need to be as accurate and comprehensible as possible both to inform policy and decision making, and the general public and the debate that needs to take place.

The hon. Gentleman obliquely criticised the accuracy of the statistics and their availability. International migration contributes significantly to total population growth in the UK, but I hope that he accepts that it is the most difficult component of population change to estimate because it has to rely on data sources that cannot match the accuracy and completeness of birth and death registrations.

Since the early 1960s, the main source of statistics on migration flows in and out of the UK has been the international passenger survey, supplemented by administrative data from the research department of the Home Office. The ONS and the Home Office continue to

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work together to try to ensure that the best use is made of all available data in the compilation of estimates of international migration.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Office for National Statistics is undertaking a national statistics quality review on international migration, the main aim of which is to make recommendations on how far the existing process should continue or how far changes to current data methods and outputs of UK international migration statistics need to change. A number of options are being considered, including the uses of other sources of information on international migration. It is anticipated that that report, including its recommendations, will go to the national statistician in April and be made public soon after.

This is an important issue. The statistics need to be as accurate as possible, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there has been no attempt on the part of the ONS or the research department of the Home Office not to proceed with that endeavour as fast and as well as we can. We want those statistics for ourselves, as well as for public debate.

The ONS, in consultation with the Home Office, is undertaking further work on a number of international migration issues in the light of the results of the 2001 census, and in due course the findings of that review will be published.

The statistics on migration produced by the ONS and the research and statistics directorate of the Home Office are part of national statistics, and their compilation and publication are covered by the national statistics code of practice. That means that they are free from political interference and are produced to high professional principles and standards. The ONS operates completely independently in producing the figures on international migration. It receives statistics and advice from other Government Departments, including the Home Office, but decides independently on how to produce those international migration statistics.

One problem with the figures, which the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will recollect I raised recently at a meeting of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, is the way in which information was traditionally collected during the course of the Conservative Government's 18 years in office, which I should like to see changed. At the moment, the figures describe the number of claims, outcomes of initial decisions and appeals, and the number of removals. We do not yet have a comprehensive picture of the way in which those populations move through the system—in other words, a cohort-based analysis of the statistics, so that we can say how many of any given cohort of people applying for asylum at a particular point in time receive an acceptance, go to appeal, are refused and then removed. That is something that we need, but it is complicated. New technology is now coming on line as a result of this Government's investment, and I hope that we shall shortly move to that position.

The asylum statistics are an important part of the debate on immigration and asylum and they are an integral part of managing the end-to-end asylum process. During the past year and a half, we have consistently improved the way in which the asylum

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statistics are presented and published to try to ensure that the messages provided by those statistics are accurate, informative and comprehensive. They are more accurate because they are now produced more slowly, allowing late reported cases to be included, and they are more informative because the quarterly figures are a better guide to trends than the monthly ones, and because the bulletin gives more detailed data about the asylum system. They are also more comprehensive because the statistics now include information on the removal of asylum seekers; supported asylum seekers, by location—local authority—and type of support; asylum seekers in detention; an estimate, shortly to be an accurate figure, of the number of dependents of principal asylum claimants; international comparisons, and progress against the public service agreement targets, for example on the speed of decision making. We want to develop those statistics about the control of immigration and asylum further, to reflect improvements in administrative data sources and the implementation of the policy changes.

The work required to assess the number of illegal migrants in the UK is important and it is being done. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex will appreciate that it is a difficult task to estimate their number and claim significant reliability and validity for the number that one produces; obviously it is difficult to estimate the number of people who are here illegally. As I mentioned, the Home Office has its own sources of information on immigration, which comes from the administration of the immigration and asylum process, but that information is collected for the purpose of monitoring the process, not migration.

As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, only the flow of people into the UK is currently recorded, and that only of those who enter lawfully or who are discovered to have entered illegally. There is no corresponding record of those leaving the country. I told the Home Affairs Committee recently that the Home Secretary has asked for work to be done to examine both the feasibility and the cost of reinstating embarkation control, which, as I think the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, the Conservative Administration abolished some years ago. Without both an embarkation control and a robust and secure mechanism to identify people in this country, and with only a record of those coming into the country, it is extremely difficult to estimate accurately the number of illegal migrants present at any one time. However, we have commissioned research into the methods used by other countries to estimate illegal migration, and based on that information and the likely sources of UK information, we will consider how to develop that estimate.

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