Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 137)



  Q120  Steve McCabe: I guess I am trying to understand what these reassuring but not too strong or too difficult controls would look like. How would you frame them?

  Professor Harris: At the moment there is no link between employers and the recruitment of workers except through the management of the migration system. We are proposing a system in which employers are able to recruit workers according to their needs but with the responsibility of ensuring their return and one in which the tax system and the income system gives them a high incentive to return. They are there for a three-year visa or less. They then go home for six months and they can reapply to come again for three years, et cetera, et cetera, and on the third time they can apply for settlement if they so wish. What we do is spread out the legal period of work in order to regularise the irregular workers, not to shut off the possibility of settlement, but that comes after the second or third period of irregular work.

  Q121  Steve McCabe: I just want to be clear that I have understood this. Is the essence of that that you shift the onus from being too restrictive on the migrant to putting this onus on the employer?

  Professor Harris: That is part of it. That is to say for each worker recruited abroad the employer must deposit the return fare, et cetera. I do not want to waste the time of the Committee on the details but it seems to me that you can manage a temporary migration system and that the fears that any temporary migration system will just lead to increased settlement are not valid.

  Q122  Steve McCabe: In essence, we are talking about people who come to fill temporary gaps in the market and not surprisingly quite a lot of them decide that they want to stay permanently. Is there not a danger that if we concentrate on filling temporary gaps in the market that what we are really doing is creating large-scale permanent migration but concealing it?

  Professor Harris: There is an annex in the report on the characteristic forms of migration and the characteristic of temporary migration is both internal and external. We then ask the question why then do people settle? Why do they choose permanent exile with all the psychological and cultural damage it does to people, which is where the US/Mexican issue arises because here we have a system which has been almost a controlled laboratory case since 1986 of enormous enforcement and physical violence on the border which means that Mexicans now settle.[2] The costs of getting in are so high that they settle. It seems to me that the migration system itself has the perverse, paradoxical effect of forcing settlement because if it is so difficult to get in and if the costs of getting in mean that you borrow so heavily and that you have to work for such a long period of time to pay off your debts, all this forces settlement. It seems to me that a system of temporary migration for one, two or three years (it does not need to be limited to three years) with high incentives to return would get round all that. We do not need to have all those powerful immigration controls which force people to settle.

  Dr Koser: Could I just place the emphasis on high incentives to return. Certainly the European lesson over the last 50 years has been that there is nothing more permanent than a temporary migrant and I think that has clearly taken place in many countries. Part of the reason has been because, as Professor Harris indicates, people once they get here and stay for three years and work decide that it is best to stay on and work because the standards of living are higher and so on and so forth. So I think careful consideration is needed about portable pensions and portable social security rights so that people can take home some of the privileges and benefits that they have earned during their two, three, five years worked. That could be an incentive for them to return and I think that is the key part of this proposal.

  Professor Harris: Can I just add that even on the European experience four-fifths of temporary migrants into Switzerland return within 10 to 15 years.[3] Something like two-thirds of the Turks going into Germany return. What happened was that the introduction of immigration controls in 1970-71 in Germany meant that employers no longer had access to a continually replenished supply of Turkish workers and began to pressurise and lobby the German government to suspend the operation of the regulations. That is something we have discussed in our report, that is to say the fact that a combination of employers and bureaucracy can defeat any temporary migration scheme. That is undoubtedly true, and the defeat of the German Gasterbeiter scheme is an excellent example. It is not that the workers had a perverse wish to stay; they wished to stay because they could not come back again. That was the key issue.

  Q123  Steve McCabe: Is not the understandable fear that many people have that if the emphasis is placed on making it easier to come for temporary employment that will become the convenient vehicle for people who really want to settle, and that is fine while the temporary gaps exist but when those jobs dry up that is when there are social and economic and cultural problems?

  Professor Harris: I agree with you and that is why the Government needs to begin to experiment with robust forms of temporary migration, so that it can then move into offering temporary migration schemes immediately but begin experimenting with them. For example, there was some claim by the Canadian government about the Mexican farm workers scheme that only one worker overstayed their visa in 25 years, showing that was a very robust scheme and that almost all the Mexicans who came temporarily to Canada returned. They had high incentives to return and they did not want to go into exile. It does seem to me that there are schemes with which the Government can experiment to find what is a robust and defensible scheme in terms of the electoral response.

  Q124  Steve McCabe: Thank you. Perhaps Professor Harris has answered what I was going to put to Dr Koser. I was interested in the Canadian example there but I do not recall seeing anything in the report about it. Did the Commission's work come across any evidence that temporary migrants do return home?

  Dr Koser: Again the Commission (I think personally mistakenly) chose not to look at specific case studies of specific countries but certainly picking up on the Canadian example that Professor Harris has referred to, yes, Canada with its particular partnership with Mexico has a very good record of people coming and working for the three years that they are allowed to work (it is normally for three years) and then returning. The problem with temporary migration is that there are certain concerns about it. For example, what you are saying to people is that we will not give you the right to family reunion, so you have to come for three years as a man, as I guess it normally is, but you certainly cannot be joined by your wife and child. There are advocates who ask whether that is a reasonable thing to do. So one does have to balance out human rights considerations with practical economic considerations. Certainly, yes, I think there are strong incentives to return if you can find ways of monitoring the labour market to make sure that people do return. If you can provide incentives for people to go back and if there are not add-ons such as family reunion, then I think there are good examples of temporary migrants returning. One thing I would say—and this is a discussion we had in the Commission if I may just share it with you—that I found very interesting is that return is difficult particularly in countries like the UK because it coincides with race relation issues. In Australia, for example, the Commissioner for Australia is very clear at the end of your three years we will come for you, we will find you and we will send you home, it is the end of your visa. That is fine because Australia does not have large settled communities of ethnic minorities. I suspect if you went to Bradford and you went into the kitchen of an Indian restaurant and said to somebody, "Your three years are up, you have got to leave now," you would risk having some sort of event, race relations riot, or whatever it was. The UK simply has recognise that it needs to balance race relations concerns with concerns about return. I think that is a very real dilemma in this particular case in the UK.

  Q125  Steve McCabe: I think that is a fair point, thank you for that. One last thing, I am a Birmingham MP and I guess like many of my colleagues I see lots of people who have come as temporary workers who then want to have part of their family come and join them, quite often to work in a family business that has developed. Do you think there might be an argument for saying we would be better off basing migration on family-based migration rather than create all these categories of temporary worker status?

  Dr Koser: A large proportion of migration in this country is on the basis of family reunion. It is spouses (often wives) and children joining people who are here legally for the long term, including, by the way, people who get refugee status. So we should not underestimate that stream. It is often not recognised, particularly by the public, that there is already a large stream of family reunion that takes place. Yes, I take your point that if you have a temporary migrant and he, for example, sets up an enterprise and want workers and his cousins or family can fill those positions there is a logical argument why not let those people do the job. The only problem is that it will then be increasingly hard to send that person back because their family is here, they are settled here, their kids are in education, and so on and so forth. So clearly it is a very difficult balance between maintaining incentives for people to return and also maintaining some sort of respect for human rights and for family unification.

  Q126  Steve McCabe: Although you may create more stable communities where people have a stronger stake in the future?

  Dr Koser: Sure and I think the debate is still out but you need to accept that there comes a point, perhaps three years perhaps five years, where you can no longer say to people, "You are still temporary," and you must say, "You can now stay permanently." I think one needs to debate when that takes place. The Commission refers to a broad concept of earned regularisation. "You have been here for this many years, you are well settled, your kids are in school, you have not got a criminal record, you have found a job and you have found a home; you can now stay," and that is a reasonable principle to apply after a certain number of years.

  Q127  Mr Benyon: Professor Harris, would you say it is an accurate précis of what you are saying that politicians should come out of the bunker mentality of controlled migration and trust in the market, in this case the labour market, much more obviously, with the caveat of requirements to return? Is that really what you are saying?

  Professor Harris: Yes, yes.

  Q128  Mr Benyon: And it is as simple as that?

  Professor Harris: We do start off from the principle that the central problem is reassuring the electorate. So all this debate is about how to reassure the electorate that it is under control at the same time as the labour needs of the country are being met without all these other negative by-products.

  Q129  Mr Benyon: I will come on to ask you about public perceptions in the minute. You started your evidence talking about areas where you felt there are failures in the system, and the fact that migration is not meeting the labour needs of the economy is one of them. In your guidelines for policy in your report you talk about the Government needing to explore all ways of meeting present and future demands for low-skilled labour. Do you feel that the Government's proposal to phase out low-skilled migration schemes is compatible with what we know about the need for low-skilled labour in the economy?

  Professor Harris: No because they are already pre-determining the level of irregular migration. That is to say, by refusing to accept that there is a demand for low-skilled labour they are then pre-determining that people will cross borders irregularly to meet that demand.

  Q130  Mr Benyon: To understand where we go from here one has to look back over the last few years. With visa applications going up from 1.8 million to 2.6 million in the last three years and work permit applications more than doubling, a simple-minded person would look at this and say well the economy is growing massively and therefore that must be sopping up this great demand, but we all know that that is not the case and countries with similar growth rates have much lower demands for migration. In the low-skilled/high-skilled debate where do you feel the great demand is coming for these work permits? Have you done a detailed analysis of where you feel it is coming from?

  Professor Harris: The areas of unskilled labour shortage are in agriculture, in hospitality, hotels, tourism, in construction and of course in health services. There are other sectors. Cleaning does not come under any category but cleaning is an enormous industry in the big cities and is staffed largely by irregular migrants, but the construction fades out into local authority road maintenance, et cetera, et cetera. These are enormous areas which because the economy has been so immensely "successful" and the figures you are quoting are the indices of its success, particularly in comparison to Germany and France and so on, then of course the labour demand has been almost insupportable. That is where irregular migration occurs. You cannot make these controls effective while labour demand is so high. The only way to do it is for the British Government to follow a macroeconomic policy that leads to contraction in labour demand. A jolly good slump would almost certainly stop irregular migration!

  Q131  Mr Benyon: I am sure we will all bear that mind.

  Professor Harris: I am sure you are strongly in favour of that, yes!

  Q132  Mr Benyon: One of your recommendations is that low-skilled migrants from outside the UK can fill some of this gap created by a drive for a high-skilled economy. We have got one and a half million unemployed and if the Government is to be believed we have got an awful lot of people on incapacity benefit who should be in work. If there was suddenly to be full employment and we were to be able to have a successful drive to get people who should be working back into work, would that gap be able to be caught up very quickly? I am talking of a speculative event obviously, but is there a complete disparity between our failure to deliver full employment and the gap being filled by migrant workers?

  Professor Harris: We have to start off by saying the number of people employed in the UK is higher than ever before and the level of unemployment is at a very low level, so the success of the economy is that more people are in work than ever before. In a rich economy I believe people are going to choose not to work, whether it is to live on pensions or just withdrawing in order to look after small children, travel round the world, do a university degree, et cetera, et cetera. It is a mark of the wealth of the economy that the labour force is going to contract. We have to accommodate that because this is actually cashing the cheque of high growth for the last 200 years and so there are going to be labour shortages. There are many types of labour shortage but let's just look at two. One is in particular sectors which employ disproportionately large levels of low or semi-skilled labour. Construction is a classic example and that is where there is such a big concentration of irregular migrants but also there is structural change in the economy. With globalisation the British economy is restructuring more and more rapidly which means that training institutions cannot meet the demand for labour with skills, so there is going to be constantly a rising need to recruit all sorts of different levels of skills for those sectors. Again let me return to the Olympics which is imposing a particular strain on the construction industry. There is already a desperate shortage of plumbers and electricians and carpenters and joiners so you can see already how decisions about the domestic economy generate this enormous demand which immigration controls cannot at the moment control On the one hand, you are asking the general question if we are able to reduce those on disability, if we could get older people to return to work all those questions in the press (leaving aside the enormous political problems and we have seen the enormous resistance to the attempt to raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 and over pensions), if that could be overcome then could we be paying wages which would induce native-born labour to work in those jobs and that is the problem, particularly if you take an extreme example like agriculture or the construction industry. The native labour force has expectations, perhaps legitimate expectations, for earnings which are right off the radar screen of what is payable at certain levels of the economy, particularly agriculture. I notice this morning with great delight that Britain is becoming a major exporter of agricultural goods. It also affects exports and if we cannot man agriculture then it will affect our external balance, both in terms of imports and in terms of capacity to export.[4] So it is a very urgent kind of question. The Government in my view has a very simple-minded view that we can upgrade to a highly skilled economy and we can all get the requisite education (and that is a noble aspiration). However, the more rapid the economy grows the greater the demand for irregular labour at the same time as the labour force is being upgraded, so we have a paradox, as we put in the report, that the more we approach the high-skilled economy the greater the need for unskilled labour and that is going to increase with the ageing of the population,[5] et cetera, et cetera.

  Mr Benyon: Thank you.

  Q133  Chairman: But it is more complex than that, is it not, because what we do see in parts of the labour market is a widespread casualisation of jobs that were 20 years ago on a formally employed basis? The spread of agency workers, for example, is affecting not just the migrant population but those sections of the domestic population that work in those areas. To some extent that is an area which is influenceable by government policy. To some extent we have made an implicit positive choice to use migrant labour as opposed, for example, to pay somewhat more to train staff or to pay a rate for a bag of salad in a supermarket that reflects a decent cost of producing it rather than the use of illegal labour to produce that bag of salad in the supermarket. So although I take your general argument about labour markets, there is probably some influence potentially available to Government over what sort of labour market it chooses to have. Is it the case that the more deregulated labour market you have the more likely you are to meet vacancies in that labour market from migrant labour rather than domestic labour?

  Professor Harris: Yes, always remembering what I just mentioned, that imports are the ultimate economic sanction. If we are speaking about agriculture then it is the price of imported agricultural goods which is affecting directly the organisation of the British labour force. That said, it seems to me that the amount of money we are spending on immigration controls could be diverted to ensuring that minimum wages are paid and conditions of work are regularised and so on and reach the civilised norm we could go quite a long way to regulate all sectors of the economy in terms of conditions and wages, so it does seem to me that the whole emphasis is wrong and it is on stopping illegal immigration rather than ensuring that all workers, migrant or native born, are able to work in conditions which are regarded as decent. It certainly is suggested, for example, that a number of people in this country at the moment from the EU Accession States believe that they are here illegally because they have been told that by the people who brought them here.

  Q134  Mr Winnick: Do I take it, Mr Harris, from what you said in reply to a question from Mr Benyon that you are not very keen on the idea of having a cap on all immigrants virtually from now and that no one should be allowed into this country, except on the basis of people who leave? What would you say to that view?

  Professor Harris: That this would be economically irrational. There are no criteria for establishing any kind of cap. If Britain needs workers, then that is what the cap should be and we cannot just say, "All right, no more in. Okay, let's strangle the economy. If we are so concerned to prevent immigration, it is our right to strangle the welfare of the population of the country in the interests of preventing people entry".

  Q135  Mr Winnick: Is it likely if we applied such a policy, which you dismiss as totally impractical, and perhaps Dr Koser can give us his comments in a moment, that France or Germany would adopt that policy?

  Professor Harris: They might, but the economic arguments are so powerful, it seems to me it is most unlikely in this or any other country because immigration is in response to changes in the local labour market and the overall health of the economy. A cap on all, on the internal staff movements of multi-national corporations, on all the different categories, on doctors entering the National Health Service, it would be madness. It is really the bluntest instrument you can think of in terms of the economy instead of a sensitive one which says, "We have certain important labour needs and, unless we meet them, the welfare of the population will be sacrificed", so the central responsibility of government would be sacrificed if there was any such cap.

  Q136  Mr Winnick: Dr Koser, what do you think of the idea which comes from such brilliant minds?

  Dr Koser: I would agree with Professor Harris that it would be economically unviable frankly. This country needs labour and one way to fill those labour market gaps is migration and, if we were to cap all labour migration, people would continue to arrive in an irregular fashion, there is no point in denying that. We have also to consider that this country has legal commitments towards the Refugee Convention and are you also proposing a cap or is a cap also being proposed on asylum-seekers and refugees such that we no longer fulfil our legal commitments towards those people as well? It is just impractical and I think that the overriding argument that I would use to convince the media and the public is that labour of migrants is needed and to stop them coming will reduce the economy of this country, and that is madness.

  Q137  Mr Benyon: I know this is a big subject and we have not got much time, but the public perception of immigration is vital and, if we are to change how we manage our system of immigration, we have got to carry the public with us. In the Election, I was very struck by the spectrum of views on this issue, which was an issue in the Election, about people's attitudes towards immigration. On one extreme, there is a frankly unpleasant view amongst a large number of people out there, it is not just my constituents, but this is across the country, who have a prejudicial view which will be very hard to change and then there is the full spectrum in the other direction as well. What we have to do is to find a system where government policy actually moves in touch with changing attitudes in the public and what you are proposing is going to require a leap of faith by a politician. How would you suggest that public perceptions towards immigration and the needs of the economy in relation to immigration can be achieved?

  Professor Harris: There are two points. The first is that public opinion today is really remarkably different from how it was in the 1960s. The change in public opinion, public attitudes, the change in popular xenophobia has been remarkable since the time of Enoch Powell's 1968 "rivers of blood" speech. If we just think of the effect of Powell's speech on the country, within six months 80% of the population thought he should be Prime Minister and there was a general strike of the dockworkers in support of him, et cetera, et cetera, so it was an amazing shock then. If you think of that today, it is impossible to have that kind of effect. Opinion has changed and remarkably so. In the report we say that we do not have any evidence as to how fragile or how robust this change of opinion is, but certainly there is a growing section, a minority, of the population which not only accepts immigration, but it welcomes it and recognises the very important economic role that there is. It is partly a question of age. The part of the population which fought in the First and Second World Wars, I am not saying they are all xenophobic or anything like that, but the fear of foreign invasion is drilled into the population from the last century, so this will take time to unwind. What is important is that people are allowed maturely to confront the problem, summed up, if I can put it into a kind of simplistic form, extracted by one of the members of the Commission, Shamit Saggar, which is: "Who is going to look after granny?" How are we to care for granny? The caring services are the real cutting edge, you understand, of this business. I have appeared on so many radio programmes and when each time one mentions the question of the care of the aged, the interviewer starts saying, "Oh, there's a desperate shortage of workers looking after our aged, the Filipinos", et cetera, et cetera, but just leaving all that aside, just in terms of the public debate, until the electorate recognise that there is a problem, no amount of legislation or change in the regulations is going to convince them, but they have to confront the fact that there is a problem, and the problem is how to care for an ageing society. As I am fond of saying, the option is to export the aged to Morocco or to somewhere with a warm climate like that and where the labour is available!

  Chairman: I think we are getting into another area of politics! Can I thank you very much indeed, Nigel Harris and Khalid Koser, for your evidence this morning; it has got us off to a very good start. Thank you.

2   Note by Witness: Rather than, as in the past, circulate. Back

3   Note by Witness: These figures refer, as in the previous related answer, to the 1950s and 1960s. Back

4   Note by Witness: At the level of wages the native-born will find acceptable, agriculture becomes uneconomic-and imports will dominate supply. Back

5   Note by Witness: The aging population and the demand for labour-intensive caring services will affect the need for unskilled labour. Back

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