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Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a pleasure to make my first Front-Bench contribution on home affairs in this debate. It is particularly pleasing to welcome the Government's apparent decision to take up Liberal Democrat policy on economic migration, which, I was surprised to learn tonight, is also the Conservatives' policy. My party officially called several years ago for the introduction of a points-based system to determine policy on migrant workers. We believed then, as we do now, that such a scheme would promote a culture of openness on issues relating to immigrant workers and respond to the country's long-term economic needs.
Before I set out why my party welcomes the broad principles underpinning the Government's new economic migration policy, I want to make two points. First, my party recognises the major contribution that generations of migrant workers and refugees have made, and continue to make, to invigorating our economy, our society and our culture. That is the starting point for our approach to immigration issues, and it is one that can easily be lost. On economic migration, every objective analysis shows conclusively that immigrants have been net contributors to our overall economy, and that their contribution is set to increase in future, as dictated by demographic trends. Our economy simply cannot afford to do without them, and it was pleasing to read that this sentiment was borne out by the consultation undertaken in advance of the Command Paper.
Secondly, I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue tonight. Often, more heat than light is generated on this issue, so I hope that tonight's discussion can involve at least some measure of consensus, as well as sober debate. It provides us with an opportunity to re-state the case for well-managed immigration, and the benefits that it brings to Britain. A points-based system is not a recipe for unlimited immigration, as some Members seem to believe; it is a policy for well-managed immigration. That is precisely why we Liberal Democrats have called for it for so long, and in my view it is what the country wants, too.
I turn now to why I believe that the proposals are broadly to be welcomed. They recognise the long-term challenges and trends that our country faces. They also recognise that, given an ageing population and the globalised economy, our country needs a migration policy that is flexible, relatively simple and able to adapt to changing needs and pressures.
In particular, a move towards simplifying what is currently a fiendishly complex system of immigration is long overdue. The complexity of current arrangements is one of the key factors that have contributed to a general lack of confidence in the system. As we all know, it is that lack of confidence that elements in our society will use to exploit fears and stoke up hatred in our communities.
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When it comes to flexibility, it is clear that work permits in their present form are inadequate, especially for meeting the needs of our 21st century economy. An emphasis on plugging skills gaps in the work force and a systematic, strategic approach are self-evidently the right way to proceed to achieve our shared aim of maintaining a competitive economy.
I also welcome the Government's acknowledgement of the diverse needs of our regions. Clearly, a rigid, whole-country approach would be undesirable. As our city regions continue to take shape, we cannot ignore the fact that their economies develop in different ways and in varying sectors. I hope that the regions will have a genuinely strong voice in discussions and decisions about the assessments made in respect of economic migration.
In addition, I welcome the overall transparency of the new system. Coupled with simplicity, that transparency provides the key to public confidence. I hope that the new arrangements will give the Government a much better handle on information and statistics related to economic migration. Furthermore, I hope that the information that the policy provides will be used wisely by all concerned.
I have set out why I and my colleagues welcome the proposals, but now I want to turn to our reservations. The prospect of the large-scale administrative and IT reorganisation of a major part of the Home Office fills me with some dread, as do the potential costs. On pretty much the full range of issuesidentity cards, criminal records checks and asylumthere has been a catalogue of disasters in terms of costings, leadership and management. For these proposals to go the same way would be unfortunate, to say the least. We would find ourselves dealing with a system designed to inspire public confidence that was doing precisely the opposite. It would do a great disservice to the good intentions behind these proposals if, as has happened in the past, policy were to be dictated by tabloid headlines.
The main issue to emerge from this policy is that, in part at least, it spells the end of low-skilled economic immigration from non-EU countries. Although I can accept the Government's premise that Britain and the EU together can meet their own labour needs for the most part, there are some obvious dangers, too.
There is a real risk that the proposals could lead to even greater exploitation of low-skilled workers, and not just by the small minority of unscrupulous employers who will use and abuse illegal labour. It could also expand the market for people traffickers, snakehead gangs and other criminal organisations. We know that this area of the labour market is notoriously grey already, but I see nothing in the Government's proposals tonight that sets out how they intend to deal with that problem.
The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely fair point, but it is not for the Command Paper to include those policies. There are extensive policies, in the UK and across the EU, on human trafficking and other matters, but they are not matters for the Command
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Paper. I can certainly provide them, but he can search for those policies in the Command Paper as much as he likes and not find them, as they do not belong there.
Much of the debate on this issue has been taken up by the specific example of catering workers, some of whom may not fulfil the criteria at any tier of the proposed arrangements. That area of the labour market is just one of many that is likely to be affected, and I hope the new system will have the flexibility and creativity needed to ensure that those sectors of our economy that rely on low-skilled labour are not unduly penalised by the policy.
Although the plans are clear about Britain's needs, as they should be, will the Minister explain what account will be taken of the needs of other countries? Our responsibilities go beyond merely protecting our own economy, and we should not be in the business of draining talent and skills from countries that can least afford to lose them.
We are often told about the ethical dimension to Britain's foreign policy, so I should be grateful for similar assurances that our economic migration policy will have a much firmer ethical foundation.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): One matter follows exactly from the point that my hon. Friend is making, and it concerns those parts of Britain with significant communities of recent immigrants. Members of families already here could come to this country at no cost to the state, as their relatives could house them, and they could then join the work force and exercise their skills. Given that the aim is to build society, community and family, I hope that special attention is given to joining up those families who are willing and able to contribute to the economy. We should not look in different places for people with no previous roots in this country.
My party's other concerns include possible burdens on businesses and universities. Better partnership working is, of course, to be welcomed and, in theory, the proposals on sponsorship have considerable merit. However, bureaucracy has a tendency to expand as time goes on, and I hope that the system is as user friendly in practice as has been promised.
I notice from the guidance that the Home Secretary can ignore the skills advisory board's views, but I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is not intended to be standard practice. In addition, as flexibility will be a key issue for the SAB, it would be useful if the Minister gave us some indication about the regularity with which the board will report. With seasonal and agricultural labour in particular, any delay on the part of the SAB or the Government could result in worker shortages.
The hon. Gentleman is concerned that the Government should heed the views of the SAB. In
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most instances, and on the assumption of its competence, I share that view, but does he agree that it is not imperative that the Government always go along with the views of a body that is simply there to advise? However, if Ministers were to decide to go in a different direction, does the hon. Gentleman also agree that they would owe the House an explanation of their reasoning?
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