Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)


4 JULY 2006

  Q380  Mrs Dunwoody: Prime Minister, precisely what is Her Majesty's Government's policy on mass migration?

  Mr Blair: To control it so that the people that come into the country are the people we want and need and to do our level best to prevent illegal migration.

  Q381  Mrs Dunwoody: So you really have an upper limit? You do not consider that mass migration is needed for economic reasons?

  Mr Blair: Yes, I think there is migration that is needed for economic reasons but there should be those economic reasons and it should not happen in an uncontrolled way.

  Q382  Mrs Dunwoody: You know that migration quite often means that people concentrate in areas which are already socially deprived. They have difficulty with housing, they have difficulty with social services, and you know that we have had, for example, an influx of Polish workers greater than, some say, any previous movement for many years. Who deals with co-ordinating policies in Whitehall that are responsible for that kind of immigration?

  Mr Blair: The Home Office, obviously, deals with the issue of migration but across Government both the Local Government Department and the Home Office look at how you deal with the consequences of this. Dr Starkey mentioned Slough and John Denham had the issue down in Southampton which I know he wrote to me about, and as a result of the letter he wrote we are looking now at how we manage better this process because, I agree, it is very difficult. There comes enormous pressure on local authorities and so on.

  Q383  Mrs Dunwoody: But, Prime Minister, it is not being managed at all, is it? Even in an area like Crewe we have had a large influx of Polish workers. They have no support from the social services system. Why should they? They have not contributed. They have to find their own housing. They are brought in by agencies who charge them for accommodation and transport and everything else they can think of and leave them with hardly any money at all. Who is dealing with that problem in Whitehall? It is not just a Home Office problem.

  Mr Blair: It is not just a Home Office problem. It is not only the Home Office that deals with it, but the fact is we cannot stop people from the European countries that have come into the European Union coming to our country.

  Q384  Mrs Dunwoody: Other nations, of course, have done but we have decided there should be no bar.

  Mr Blair: No; it is very important we get this clear. Free movement of people has been there for all the countries in Europe so there is no reason why Polish people or Czechs or Slovaks cannot move around Europe absolutely freely. With regard to the free movement of workers, the ability to work, there were transition periods that some countries agreed but most of those countries have now either come into line with what we are doing or, even through the barriers they have put in place—I think I was reading the other day that Germany has got somewhere in the region of 500,000 work permits that it has given to east Europeans, so we are all facing the same issue as a result of the membership of the European Union. However, on the whole I think a lot of that migration has also been beneficial for our economy.

  Q385  Mrs Dunwoody: In my constituency schools are closing and then suddenly receiving large influxes of children they had not planned for. Is there a minister with special responsibility for co-ordination across the Home Office, social services, benefits, education as well, who can demonstrate that they have a co-ordinated policy that they are very happy to accept, for economic reasons, these migrants and that they are going to give support to the local government areas concerned? Who is it?

  Mr Blair: The Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government do work very closely on it but there is a limit to what they can do because it is not clear always where the people will go, and when they do go and, for example, there is then pressure on the local school then yes, of course, the Department of Education is brought in as well.

  Q386  Mrs Dunwoody: You have yourself said that public concern is frequently generated by the perception that the system has not been sufficiently managed or controlled, so what are your plans now to deal with that?

  Mr Blair: I think you have to look at migration in two quite separate dimensions.

  Q387  Mrs Dunwoody: You have to deal with the migration when they appear, Prime Minister, on the ground, to be fashionable.

  Mr Blair: But there is a big difference between people who have got an absolute right to come here, which is what those people who are members of the European Union have, and other people, who obviously have to go through visa requirements and so on.

  Q388  Mrs Dunwoody: At the moment we do not seem to be dealing terribly well with either. What is the co-ordinated plan? Let us take immigration from eastern Europe. What local government support is being given? What services are available? What extra monies have been donated by central Government and who has the overall responsibility for deciding these priorities?

  Mr Blair: For example, in respect of the money that comes to local government, that is part of the continual discussion that the Department for Communities and Local Government has with local government about the pressures that are on them, and this is part of the perpetual negotiation when authorities come to us, as they have done recently and said, "Look: there are more people here than we bargained for. You have to give us additional resource". That is part of the negotiation that has gone on for ever about these things. The point I am making to you though is that it is a completely different situation with people coming from the European Union than with people coming from outside.

  Q389  Mrs Dunwoody: Yes, and the point I am making to you is that I see no clear indication that we have a very clear policy for either group.

  Mr Blair: We do actually have a clear policy for both, but I agree: it is very difficult. There are huge challenges for any country at the moment dealing with mass migration. We are not alone in that. It is probably the biggest issue on the agenda of most European countries and it is the single biggest domestic issue in the United States.

  Q390  Mrs Dunwoody: So is it the Government's intention to isolate specific sums of money to deal with this and to make it very clear to the local authorities who are under pressure that they will give them extra support that is not part of their normal local government funding?

  Mr Blair: We do as part, as I say, of the negotiation that goes on the whole time between local government and central Government. When there are particular issues that come up in local authority areas then we can and do allocate additional sums, but obviously it is a situation which you have to negotiate on each basis because otherwise you end up not having proper control of public money.

  Q391  Mrs Dunwoody: Except that the people who have children who appear on the doorstep of schools which are about to be closed are not negotiating, are they, Prime Minister?

  Mr Blair: If you have a situation where, as a result of people coming into the country, there is pressure on a particular school, or indeed it could be pressure on the local employment circumstances and local housing is another major issue, then you have to handle it as best you can, and that is a matter, as I say, for discussion between central Government and local government, but there is no easy way of dealing with this.

  Q392  Mrs Dunwoody: Life is difficult, Prime Minister.

  Mr Blair: Yes. Thank you for acknowledging that.

  Mrs Dunwoody: I thought it was what you were paid for; forgive me. You have differentiated between illegal migrants and the other kind. Can Mike Gapes ask you some questions on this?

  Q393  Mike Gapes: Leaving aside the European Union migrants, you referred to people who come here with visas. Could you tell me how many people come in legally to work, to study, to join families or as asylum seekers each year?

  Mr Blair: People who come in to study I think—and I will have to check the exact figures for you[4]—last year there were round about 270,000 who came into study, which was slightly down on the previous couple of years. The asylum applications last year were 25,000. You have got basically 11 to 12 million people who come in, most who come in as tourists but others who come in for short work periods and so on.

  Q394 Mike Gapes: What is your best estimate of the number of people who come in illegally, either by overstaying or by being smuggled in by people smugglers or coming in in other ways?

  Mr Blair: As I always say to people—and it is not often I pray in aid Michael Howard but I do on this occasion, when he was Home Secretary in the previous Government—the very nature and the fact that they are illegals makes it difficult to have a precise estimate. As I say, this is a problem for every single major country and the reason is perfectly simple: because you have got millions of people who come into our country perfectly lawfully, who we want to come into our country, for reasons of trade, for reasons of studying, for reasons of tourism. The difficulty is that if any of those people overstay then you have got to have a system for checking up on it. That is why, to get back on one of my familiar hobby horses, in the end the only answer to this is electronic borders and identity cards, and even then you will not have a complete answer.

  Q395  Mike Gapes: The Home Office published in 2005 a study by the Migration Research Unit at the University College London that said in 2001 their central estimate was 430,000 illegal migrants in the UK in 2001. Would you demur from that figure?

  Mr Blair: No but, as I think they also pointed out at the time—and that is why this figure has been widely canvassed—the truth is you cannot be absolutely sure for the very reason of the problems that you have. One of the reasons why we have introduced the points system, why we have tightened up significantly, for example, on student visas, why we are introducing biometric visas and biometric passports, is precisely in order to make sure we have a better record, but we are in no different a position, in fact in some ways we are in a better position than many other European countries.

  Q396  Mike Gapes: The new Home Secretary John Reid said that: "Illegal immigrants should not be coming here; if they get here we should find them; and when we find them we should deport them." Given that there are hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in this country, many of whom may have been here several years, including people who have young children born in this country, people who have been educated entirely in this country, is it really a realistic option to find and deport hundreds of thousands of people and their families?

  Mr Blair: It is extremely difficult but on the other hand it is important that where people are here illegally that they are deported. Part of the trouble is, though, when you do want to deport people, for very obvious reasons, you will find great local campaigns in favour of the people, people saying it is quite wrong that they are put out of the country and so on. In the end, until there is a proper system of identifying people, it is going to be very, very difficult to do.

  Q397  Mike Gapes: Two-thirds of all new migrants come to London and the South East. Presumably a similar proportion of illegal migrants or maybe more come to London and the South East. We know that in the London economy, which is so vital to the rest of the country, there are hundreds of thousands of people working in all kinds of jobs, many of whom may have a chequered immigration history. What is going to be the consequence of deporting hundreds of thousands of people from London and the South East?

  Mr Blair: Well, I think, Mike, you have got to look at it the other way as well. What is the consequence of saying that even if someone is an illegal migrant, you are going to allow them to stay? The consequence is that you are going to get a lot more. So it is very difficult. The most sensible thing for us in this particular debate is to realise the scale and the challenge of the problem. I know it is very easy for you to sit here and say this, "But this Home Office official or that Home Office minister . . . " When I had a discussion with the European Council a couple of weeks ago with the European leaders, the discussion over dinner was about this topic and the Spanish led the way on it and just said, "Down in the south of Europe we are being overwhelmed by this problem of mass migration. Up in the north of Europe it is all different," and we all put our hands up and said, "No, it is not." If you take a small country like Malta, this is a very, very serious issue for them right now because of the numbers of people that are coming illegally across from Africa and elsewhere. In the end the reason why it is so difficult is this: there are good reasons for people coming into countries today and the majority of people, as I say, you want to come in and therefore the problem is if someone, for example, comes in with a student visa and they overstay at the end of it, you need a big system to put in place to be able to go and track down that person and pick them up and put them back. One of the reasons why I am saying that you need to refashion all the rules around this type of situation is that the scale of what you are talking about is just a world away from 20 or 30 years ago. I agree with you, it is very, very hard to go and deport people who may have been here for several years illegally. On the other hand, it is a very big signal to send out if you are going to say, "Provided you can stay here a certain length of time, even though you are an illegal, we will not do anything about you." That is why in the end this is where Europe has got to co-operate on a far better basis to protect our borders. In the end, as I say, here in this country and I am sure this will happen elsewhere as well, biometric technology and identity cards will be the answer.

  Q398  Mr Maclean: Prime Minister, in answer to Gwyneth a few moments ago you said this was one of the greatest problems the Home Office faced and there was a limit on what the Home Office could do about it. Is that limit not apparently imposed by the Home Office itself, since it seems to have fallen into a shambles according to your current Home Secretary? Why after nine years of your administration does your Home Secretary say that the Home Office is dysfunctional, unfit for purpose, lacking in management systems and leadership?

  Mr Blair: What he actually said was as a result of the scale of the challenges in mass migration, the Home Office is not fit for purpose. If you look back over the past nine years it is simply not true to say that nothing has happened. If you take the asylum system that we inherited from your administration, David, that system was in a genuine shambles. You were not a Home Office Minister, were you?

  Q399  Mr Maclean: I was a Home Office Minister and it was not a shambles, Prime Minister!

  Mr Blair: Actually it was a shambles. I am so glad I remembered that! Let me just tell you that when we came to office, it used to take on average, I think I am right, 14 months to do an asylum application and we had a 60,000 backlog of asylum cases. Am I right?

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