Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill

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Mr. Turner: I am certainly aware that such statistics are published, but I am also aware that the Government repeatedly challenge the statistics published by Migrationwatch UK and the Home Secretary says that he does not have a clue what the answers are to some of the questions that are justifiably asked of him.

New clause 19 considers the Government's movement from a fairly restricted policy on work permits to a more liberal policy. We understand that that change is made in response to demand, but when unemployment in some parts of the United Kingdom is still as high as it regrettably is, it is hard to see that that demand is uniform. Will the Minister project the level of demand for labour in the United Kingdom and make an assessment of that demand so that the public can judge whether it is necessary for work permits to be issued, and for them to be issued in a particular area, or for a particular skill? Recently, there was a significant downturn in IT, yet work permits for IT personnel continued to be issued throughout—I do not know whether they still are.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for tabling the new clause and for his contributions throughout our proceedings. New clause 17 draws attention to a gap in our knowledge relating to counting people into the country and counting them out so that we have a realistic picture of our population at any one time, telling us what proportion of those who come into this country on visas or by any other lawful method return after their visa has expired.

There are many stories in the press about our exploding population, which we should take with a pinch of salt because we cannot know whether they are true. Not one of us can know accurately what the population of this country is at any one time. If anyone points me to the census as an accurate measure I will say ''Rubbish'', because the census becomes more of a farce as the years go by in terms of its ability accurately to portray how many people there are in this country.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is somewhat incompatible with our libertarian tradition to have such close monitoring of people's movements and whereabouts? That is one of the reasons why the big step to start monitoring people in that way has never been taken by a Government of any persuasion.

Mr. Malins: I am all for libertarian instincts, and I never commend trying to find out where people are at a given time or what their movements are. However, we need to know accurately how many people are in the country. Not many years ago, we counted people out of the country as well as counting them in. I believe that successive Home Affairs Select Committees have remarked on the fact that we do not nowadays have a method for counting people out. They have not been critical, but they have made the observation.

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I read what Migrationwatch UK says about the number of people who are coming into the country and staying here unlawfully. That is speculation; we cannot know. People's judgment is often coloured by what they read in the newspapers. If the newspaper reports day after day that the population of a country is increasing by 200,000 a year, after a while one believes that. People's fears can be increased by speculation, but what we do not have is knowledge—the lack of knowledge leaves an unhealthy vacuum. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight does us a great service in pointing out in the new clause that it would be helpful to know how many people have arrived in the United Kingdom in the previous year and how many people have departed. That covers lawful admissions; we cannot know—unless there is an accurate census—the position of illegal immigrants.

I have teased the Home Secretary about his comment that he has not got a clue how many illegal immigrants are here. However, if nothing else, it was honest—one does not know. It might be a dozen; it could be more. Like me, the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), who represents his constituency in an assiduous fashion, knows that it is impossible to bring the port of Dover to a halt by stopping every vehicle and searching it. We do not have the ability to do that. We are in difficult territory and it is not a criticism when I say to the Minister that, while we do not have accurate statistics and it is not even certain whether we can get them—there is an argument for adjourning this discussion until we find out whether we can—those who are capable of being frightened by newspapers will be so frightened.

I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) about needing to approach the matter in a level-headed way. We need to have a proper debate about our infrastructure and the pressures, if any, on it in terms of schooling, housing, population trends and what we think is reasonable. Reading new clause 19, which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight moved so capably, reminds me that there is sense in having a dialogue with industry and commerce about how many people are needed with particular skills at a particular time. That is where we need help and more statistics.

I hope that I have expressed my views in a level-headed way. My hon. Friend has done us a service in bringing the matter before us and there is a lot of sense in what he says. Some knowledge of our population—is it growing or not, can we count people in and out, what about work permits and numbers?—would be a useful addition to a debate that we must not be afraid to have. We owe it to our constituents to have that debate on a regular basis.

Mr. Gerrard: I accept that the statistics should be improved. However, there is no shortage of them: the quarterly statistics published by the Home Office give an enormous amount of information. Some of what is asked for in the new clauses is totally impractical. New clause 17 would provide that the Secretary of State is supposed to find out information about the number of

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people subject to immigration control and the numbers of their dependants resident outside the United Kingdom. How on earth he would do that is beyond me. In the last full year, about 13 million people are supposed to have entered through UK ports, although I think that is an underestimate. If arrivals from EU countries are included, I think that 20-odd million arrived, of which 13 million were subject to some immigration control as they entered on a work permit or as a visitor, for example. The bulk will have entered as visitors.

We need better statistics, but not in the form suggested in new clause 17, of how many people have entered and left the country or sought and been granted asylum each year. One problem is that we get yearly and quarterly statistics that make it difficult to track what is happening. The people who applied for asylum this year and the people whose cases were decided were not the same people. Some of the latter group will have applied last year, while some of the cases of those applying this year will not be decided until next year. Annual figures often compare two sets of statistics that do not refer to the same people, which does not help anyone. If we want to improve statistics, we would get more profit from ones that we could use to track people .

Some Committee members will have discussed embarkation controls, and there are arguments on both sides about whether they would be a good idea. We used to have some embarkation controls, which I believe disappeared in the early 1990s—certainly before 1997. That happened because of the development of freedom of movement in the EU. If we want embarkation control to return, it would be sensible to have it by electronic means, perhaps when passports are more widely machine-readable. That would be better than trying to count and record figures manually, because the scale of the operation is so big that trying to work any way other than electronically would be futile.

The proposed new clause would not be particularly useful. However, we should consider improving the statistics that we use to identify trends, particularly by getting away from using year-on-year figures that never compare like with like.

Beverley Hughes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow for his comments. A large volume of immigration and immigration statistics are already published by the Office for National Statistics and the Home Office. They may not appear precisely in the format requested, but they include figures on asylum, pre-entry control, on-entry statistics, after-entry control, settlement, enforcement and citizenship. Population and migration projections published by the Government Actuary's Department are also included.

When statistics are not published, it is because it is not possible or straightforward to collect the information—my hon. Friend gave some examples of that—or we simply do not know how reliable or valid an estimate is. That is not a Government failure as, by

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definition, people in a country illegally do not declare themselves. Although some countries make an estimate, they cannot be certain about the margins within which it is likely to be accurate. It is a difficult estimate to make.

The new clause would require the Home Secretary to publish estimates where statistics are often not available or where they are so inaccurate that they are of little use. The publication of inaccurate statistics is very unhelpful in informing the kind of measured and mature debate for which the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) rightly appealed.

We must not have that debate on the basis of inflammatory statistics that nobody knows are accurate, such as those produced by Migrationwatch UK. It produces its figures on the basis of a whole range of quite spurious assumptions that are secret, not testable. The strength of any statistics or any theory is the extent to which it is possible to replicate the production of those figures or that theoretical premise—how far is it testable. Migrationwatch UK produces statistics on the basis of untestable assumptions. This is because, while it often purports to be an independent organisation, in fact it has shown itself to be an organisation that is simply opposed to all migration, for various clients, and it cooks its books to suit its arguments. That is why, particularly, it has no validity.

 
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