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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 20 June 2007

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Migrant Workers (Regularisation)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Kevin Brennan.]

9.30 am

Jon Cruddas (Dagenham) (Lab): Just to clarify any confusion about the title of the debate, initially it was put down as the Registration of Migrant Workers, but it has been clarified to focus on the regularisation of unregularised migrants. The two titles mean very different things, so I just wanted to make clear my focus in this debate from the outset.

By one of those coincidences, I was made aware that our request for a debate about regularisation had been successful just after I had accepted an invitation to participate at 10 o’clock this morning in my constituency in a refugee week event with John Armitage, from the diocese of Brentwood, who has been a leading advocate of the regularisation campaign throughout. Unfortunately, I cannot make the event today, but the campaign’s work in our constituency to support refugees or unregularised migrants is humbling to witness as a local MP.

Given that we are in the middle of refugee week, it is timely that we hear some of the debates about the status of at least 500,000 people in this country, not including their dependants, who have no legal status in the country. From my local casework, I have found those people are often the most abused by employers, landlords and criminal gangs. Given the nature of the debate about refugee week, which is taking place throughout the length and breadth of the country, it is also timely that we discuss the possible remedies to bring them out of the shadows and regularise their status in this country.

I know that the issue is very difficult politically, but it is incumbent on us all as local politicians and public policy makers to speak up for some of those people who have no voice and no traction in the political process. The debate today is about providing possible remedies—sometimes called an “amnesty”, but I prefer the term “an earned regularisation”—to the status of up to or possibly more than 500,000 people in this country.

It is agreed that those 500,000 people are a combination of refused asylum seekers who have been made to wait years for their applications to be processed, and are now rooted in British society; and visa over-stayers, who work, pay taxes and are part of our communities. What both have in common is that they are in legal limbo; that they are often, as a result, very poor; and that they are trapped between the countries that they have come from and the society that they wish to make their new home.

The Home Office accepts that most of those people will remain in the UK. Deportations are expensive and difficult, and they number no more than 20,000 a year. At the current rate of deportation, it would take
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25 years to remove hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants, and it would cost billions of pounds. Even if it were possible, it would not make any sense to do so, as economists, including those at the CBI and the TUC, agree that continued migration is vital if we are to meet skills shortages, and that it is responsible for our current low-inflation growth.

A report by the National Criminal Intelligence Service summarised the total loss to the Exchequer from unpaid tax and national insurance contributions to be as much as £3.3 billion. The extra fiscal revenue from a regularisation process would result in a net gain to the Exchequer of between £500 million and £1 billion, according to estimates supplied by the Institute for Public Policy Research. At the same time, the National Audit Office says that each deportation costs almost £11,000. The IPPR says that it would cost £4.7 billion to deport the 500,000 people whom the Government think are in the country.

Many other countries, including the United States, Spain, Greece and Germany, have issued so-called “amnesties” in recognition of the fact that at some point, people who have lived in the country for an extended period, starting families and putting down roots, can no longer be reasonably be regarded as outsiders. Maintaining the current policy is causing chaos, distress, bureaucratic logjams and misery on a large scale. De facto, those people are part of society, and our obligations to them mirror those that we owe our fellow citizens. Hard-working families are being criminalised, and honest people turned into liars. The underground economy is growing, creating an area outside the law which gives succour to criminals.

One solution, which we outlined in early-day motion 1371, standing in my name, and which I think has the support so far of 81 MPs from all political parties, many faith groups, business leaders, community leaders, the Mayor of London and the Strangers into Citizens campaign, is that irregular migrants who have been in the UK for four years or more, up to a determined date, should be allowed to work legally for two years without access to benefits. At the end of that period, subject to employer and other references, criminal checks and the like, they should be given leave to remain. That six-year earned pathway would also maintain a strong deterrent to future illegal immigration. That is only one option in hand. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has also put forward a solution based on a two-year threshold and then a five-year work permit, leading to an earned regularisation. There are different models around.

I shall not use the word “amnesty” today, because it suggests to more melodramatic elements of the press, a blanket pardon for criminals, and it gives the impression that anyone without status in the UK should be given leave to remain. I am arguing for a pathway into citizenship for long-term migrants, which is a significantly different concept.

My proposal would consist of a carefully managed programme, which would allow those people who had made new lives in the UK to acquire the rights and legal status that everyone who lives and works in the UK permanently should enjoy. Regularisation is what I wish to argue for today—a one-off as opposed to a rolling regularisation measure to coincide with the Government’s border-enforcing policies that are set to take effect over the next two years. Next year a points-based system will
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be introduced, and we also have the introduction of ID cards, and the general overhaul of the Home Office’s work. Arguably, they create the opportunity for a one-off regularisation process to deal with the legacy of public policy failures that have been mapped out over perhaps 20 years.

I do not oppose—indeed, I support—the notion that a nation state must regulate its borders, and any measure with provisions that are too generous could weaken that policy. In 2005, Spain regularised some 700,000 people as part of a wider border-enforcement measure to extend the state’s control over the black economy and curb illegal immigration. Since 2005, the number of illegal immigrants has gone down not up—proof that well designed regularisation helps to deter illegal immigration.

There is no longer a deterrent effect in criminalising people who are hard-working, honest and conscientious, who pay taxes and contribute to society, and who have put down roots in the UK. Forcing them to live beyond the law does not make our borders stronger, but brings the law itself into disrepute. It also encourages people traffickers, drug traffickers, international criminals and terrorists, who are far harder to track down, because of the size of the shadow economy in which they operate. Regularisation would help to expose those undesirables, enabling authorities to concentrate resources on removing them, not the honest, hard-working people who are building Britain.

Regularisation would also greatly benefit our asylum process, clearing at a stroke the huge backlog of cases dating back to the late 1990s. The measure would also bring relief and hope to thousands left destitute or in limbo, freeing up their energies and gifts to the benefit of the economy.

Overall, the benefits of regularisation might be: to reduce the size of the undocumented population; to reduce the size of the underground economy; to increase tax and social security contributions, given that as a result of Spain’s 2005 measures, the country has paid off its social security deficit; to improve the human rights and dignity of migrants; to enforce minimum wage and other labour legislation, levelling the playing field for all workers; to gain control over the undocumented population, allowing Governments and local councils to meet real needs; to improve the rule of law and national security, reducing criminality and enabling states to concentrate on deporting undesirable or criminal elements; to fill local labour market needs; to assist in community cohesion and integration; and to reduce employer exploitation.

Regularisation enables migrants to break free of exploitive employers, to challenge exploitation through the law and to compete for better jobs. Many irregular migrants face a glass ceiling that their status imposes, and most work well below their skill levels.

I want to cover a couple of the responses that we are likely to hear today. The first is that a regularisation programme of the type envisaged would encourage greater illegal migration. It is true that regularisations in the EU have not succeeded in drying up illegal immigration, but they have offered a just, humane and sensible way of responding to it. The only factors that can definitively reduce illegal immigration are tight border controls and a sluggish economy with high
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unemployment. As long as our economies are growing and our birth rate remains low, we can expect immigration. However, because the economy is ahead of any attempt by the state to manage the migration, there will be some degree of illegality.

The question is whether a regularisation programme will make the situation worse. It is true that although the US, Spain and Belgium have introduced regularisation measures, all have continued to experience illegal immigration. However, it is also true that those countries that have not introduced substantial regularisation measures, such as the UK, have also experienced a rise in illegal immigration. Although we can be certain that, on their own, regularisations do not prevent illegal immigration, it would be foolhardy to suggest that they caused or encouraged it.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I have been following his argument closely and with genuine interest. The evidence from other countries that have brought forward such regularisation measures would suggest that each time they have been introduced, a larger number of illegal immigrants have been introduced into the programme. For example, Italy has had five such programmes. In 1987-88, 119,000 illegal immigrants were regularised, and that figure has increased in stages, to 235,000 in 1990, 259,000 in 1996, 308,000 in 1998 and 700,000 in 2002. Does that not suggest that such regularisation programmes actually encourage illegal immigration?

Jon Cruddas: The picture is much more mixed than that. Most migration experts assert that economic factors—not the chance of citizenship—are the primary pull factors in the migration process. Rather than seeing the regularisation process as the key driver behind patterns of migration, if we compare and contrast the situation in Spain with the experience of other countries, the picture appears much more mixed and suggests a more nuanced analysis of the pull factors. The jury is out—the subject is up for debate and that is why we are having this debate today. However, simply seeing the regularisation process in Italy as the trigger for successive waves of illegal immigration belies the broader economic dynamics at work, which suggest a more balanced analysis of what contributes to such extraordinary demographic flows.

To continue from that, the dynamics at work in patterns of migration in Europe over the past few years suggest that the push factors are poverty at home, lack of opportunity, political instability, violent conflict and the desire to reunite with family members abroad. The pull factors in Europe are a declining population and a continuing demand for labour, especially in the low-wage, low-skill parts of the economy. Anecdotal evidence in the UK suggests that irregular migrants are usually escaping a situation or seeking a better life. They are not after a new passport. Often they go back or move on to a third country, but sometimes they end up staying, albeit for a host of reasons that they would not have foreseen when they left their initial countries.

Migrants have come to the UK in search of new lives and opportunities, not citizenship. A one-off regularisation measure of the sort that I propose would not act as a further incentive, because our criteria are strict—the Strangers into Citizens campaign proposes four plus
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two years—because the measure would be a one-off and because both the main political parties in the UK are committed to border enforcement measures, which would make it harder to enter the country illegally. On its own, regularisation will not deter illegal immigration, either. However, combined with border enforcement measures, such as those that the Government are now implementing and the type of measures that I advocate, it would be stated with certainty that regularisation would not encourage further illegal immigration.

Most irregular migrants who also pay taxes receive nothing in return by way of benefits. It is only right that those work and contribute to British society should be given the basic protections of the welfare state.

Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on one of the toughest subjects facing us in Britain today. I start from the position that he does, which is that I do not want anyone to be exploited, but would he attack me for a lack of faith, in being vaguely sceptical about the TUC report this week? It said that migrant workers do not have an impact on unskilled and semi-skilled workers. I take the view that we have an incomes policy in this country that affects unskilled and semi-skilled workers, but not the big City earners in the square mile down the river. How are we going to address that problem, so that we can ensure that our key belief that nobody at all should be exploited is delivered to us all?

Jon Cruddas: That is a big debate, but I agree with my hon. Friend and have some suspicions about the TUC report. It argued that, apart from a number of anecdotal examples, there was no negative effect, in terms of employers abusing migrant workers, of deregulating labour markets. In my constituency recently, for example, a Lithuanian gang was employed on £15 a day—barely half the minimum wage—on a public contract. Similarly, I am sure that we all have anecdotal evidence of forms of exploitation and abuse that I have not witnessed in 20 to 25 years occurring in regular patterns in cities such as London. That means that we have to deal with the problem. Part of that should be a regularisation process. Often, those who receive the most compound abuse, from employers, landlords, criminal gangs and so on, are those who have no status.

To put a floor under the labour market, we have to address the tough stuff—those groups of people who are disproportionately used as pawns to deregulate labour markets. In my experience, those who have no status are the most susceptible to those bad employers. That is why regularisation is part of a series of policy initiatives that would allow a more mature debate about race and migration, as well as choking off some of the material forces that play into the hands of those employers who want to abuse those groups in society with the least protections. Regularisation is linked to the TUC report, but the TUC report does not go anywhere near far enough in acknowledging the labour market pressures that are causing the race to the bottom that we are currently experiencing.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Would he agree that one good step forward would be to encourage and allow much tougher contract compliance by all public bodies in all
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public spending, particularly on construction and maintenance contracts? Too often, local authorities and others turn a blind eye to what they know is going on, in their name, effectively, through public spending on building contracts.

Jon Cruddas: That is absolutely right. The state has a key role in that, as well as in the health economy, for example. Some of the most widespread abuses of migrant workers that I have witnessed have been through the supply chain in cleaning or security contracts and the like. The state has a key role. This is a different policy agenda again, but if we introduce a system of contract compliance, so that those who bid for public money should have a system of employment contracts over and above the statutory minimum, that could also help to create a floor. That way, the most vulnerable would not be the most exploited, through their labour market situation, by employers using those with no recourse to the law to overcome their exploitation at work. I therefore acknowledge the pioneering work done by some of the unions in cities such as London on living wage campaigns among those who arguably have the least status in this city, but who make some of the most significant contributions.

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Ind Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend and strongly support the campaign. The cruelty with which some failed or waiting asylum seekers are treated is abominable. The strong anti-immigration feeling in the country is partly caused by the chaos of the system and by lots of people being unable to work. That makes people resent those living at public expense who are not working.

To stop an uncontrolled flow and to stop criminal people smugglers from running the international asylum system, we need to renegotiate the Geneva convention, give automatic funding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ensure that anyone who is fleeing anywhere in the world is cared for—we are not, for example, providing funding for Iraqi refugees—and have committed numbers, so that we can bring in people in a managed way, with their families and able to work and settle. The answer to the point that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) raised is a renegotiation of the convention, to bring it up to date for the conditions of the modern world.

Jon Cruddas: I totally agree. The debate about regularisation is not a panacea for anything, but an attempt to stimulate a series of consequential debates about the international treaty and how to manage extraordinary global demographic movements. There is the refugee issue; my right hon. Friend alluded to Iraqi refugees, and there are 2.2 million of them.

Domestic policy initiatives over and above regularisation could allow the construction of a different architecture around the politics of race, migration, asylum and demography in this country. Arguably, the combination of our current policies is systematically poisoning the well around the whole debate. Unless we retrieve the situation by having a mature, grown-up debate based on real people, such as the 500,000 in this country, we shall not be able to retrieve some of the terms of debate. That is worrying for the broader issues of community cohesion.

I witness that in my own community; the far right has secured 12 council seats in our borough, and that is not unrelated to some of these questions. Unless we step
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back, try to establish a different discussion and bring different policy initiatives—even if they are uncomfortable—into play, I will worry about where the whole debate will head.

I shall make a couple of concluding points, as I know that a number of colleagues want to contribute. Like many who call for one-off regularisation, I welcome the Government’s commitment to tighten UK borders and introduce a new monitoring and assessment system into the immigration process. Keith Best of the Immigration Advisory Service stated that regularisation:

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