Previous Section Index Home Page

20 Jun 2007 : Column 451WH—continued

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said about a one-off system of regularising people who have been here for, say, four
20 Jun 2007 : Column 452WH
years. We can work out the details of that. Like many others in the Chamber, I have constituents who are asylum seekers. Half of my advice surgery cases involve asylum seekers who come to me, not necessarily to discuss the merits or justice of their case, but simply to get an answer from the Home Office to letters that have been unanswered—in some cases, for years. The Home Office is in an appalling mess. It cannot respond to simple correspondence and give people a degree of security. That has to be looked at.

When someone applies for asylum, they have to pass tests. Are they in legitimate and genuine fear of persecution because of political, social, religious or racial circumstances? All those issues are considered. Most asylum applicants are turned down at first, many win on appeal and many subsequently get the right to remain even though they have not necessarily been granted asylum status. The prospect of removing large numbers of people from this country simply is not on, particularly if they have been here for some years. Somebody who has been here for five years will have children and relationships, and will be contributing to the community. What will we do with them? Will we really uproot and deport them? No. We must recognise that they are here and deal with the situation accordingly.

I support the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham, and I recognise the boldness of the Churches, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Transport and General Workers Union—now Unite—and other unions and individuals who have been prepared to take up the issue. If we want to live in a decent and cohesive society, our wealth and prosperity cannot rely on people who lead a feral and twilight existence, and who are grossly exploited and subject to criminal activities, drug dealers and prostitution. All those things happen because we allow the situation to continue.

The hon. Member for Ryedale pointed out what is happening across Europe. The United States is having this debate in an atmosphere that is very different from the one here. Its politicians—not universally, but generally—are lining up to say that the USA can no longer consider itself a decent, cohesive society if it relies on the twilight existence of a large number of mainly Mexicans and central Americans to do all its dirty jobs. It is time that all the western nations woke up to the problem and recognised that if we believe in human rights, decency and citizenship, we should grant them to everybody in our society.

10.22 am

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on obtaining this debate on what is, undoubtedly, a matter of great concern to many Members of the House. That is clear from the contributions that have been made. The debate deals with the significant suffering and exploitation that are either unnoticed by the country at large or, perhaps worse, grossly misrepresented by the media.

May I take the opportunity to join my hon. Friend and others in welcoming the Strangers into Citizens campaign? As he pointed out, the debate is not, as often portrayed, about offering an amnesty but about offering positive ways forward. It is about offering pathways to citizenship for long-term migrants, many of whom are in situations of absolute and abject hopelessness. For
20 Jun 2007 : Column 453WH
the most part, they have the potential to contribute in an enormously valuable way to our society, to our economy and to every aspect of our life, but, for far too many of them, the hopelessness and despair that they face is very real, and their situation must seem to them to be a tremendous waste of their lives and skills.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), I see many people in such circumstances at my surgery. They despair not just over the waste and uncertainty but of any answer as to what the future might hold for them. They are unable to see any clear path for the future. I pay tribute to the many individuals and groups throughout the country who work so tirelessly and so well with those who face uncertain or hopeless situations, particularly in my constituency and in my city of Leicester. Tomorrow evening, I shall attend at Leicester cathedral a presentation on the third survey of destitute and homeless asylum seekers. The work has been undertaken by various groups in the city—faith groups in particular but many individuals as well—that are committed to working with those disadvantaged individuals and to bringing their plight and the reality of their situation to local attention. Those individuals and faith groups fill a gap that desperately needs filling, and often do so in a committed and selfless way.

We have had a well informed and thoughtful debate, and Members from all parties recognise the need to end the waste that is so much a symptom of the present situation. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond sympathetically, and that she will recognise that a positive response is required from the Government to the considerable momentum that is developing behind the Strangers into Citizens campaign. The Government must respond to the needs of those who find themselves in hopeless situations. Those people need a pathway to a positive future that will enable them to make a positive contribution to the society of which they wish to be part.

10.26 am

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) on his contribution. This has been an interesting debate, but I have to say to him that it is not reflective of the mood of the country as a whole. I shall probably be a lone voice in this debate. I have a genuine interest in the proposals, and I hope that there will be many other opportunities to go into them in more detail.

We all agree that there is a huge problem in this country with illegal immigration, but I am afraid that it is largely of the Government’s making. The Home Office and Foreign Office procedures for visas are in complete and utter chaos, and all of us, week in and week out, receive letters, e-mails and phone calls from constituents who have not received the replies that they deserve to their applications. The problem has become far worse in the past 10 years. Regardless of someone’s political persuasion, if they look at the matter objectively, they would have to admit that the way in which applications are processed is completely incompetent, and it seems to be getting worse and worse.

The public are angry about the level of immigration in this country. We now have an unprecedented wave of
20 Jun 2007 : Column 454WH
both legal and illegal immigration, and, as far as most people are concerned, they have not been asked for their view on it at all. I quote from an opinion poll carried out in January by YouGov. To the statement,

83 per cent. agreed or strongly agreed. To the statement, “Britain is already overcrowded”, 76 per cent. agreed. To the statement,

78 per cent. agreed. On the statement,

the jury was split: 31 per cent. agreed or strongly agreed, and 32 per cent. disagreed or strongly disagreed. As a political class, we have a very real problem with the issue. There are not many of us here for this debate, yet this is one of the big issues in the country. We need to have a major debate on the Floor of the House to flesh out the question in far more detail.

10.29 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I start as is customary and with genuine sentiment, by congratulating the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on securing the debate and on taking a sustained interest in this important topic, despite the distraction of his potential elevation on Sunday and his other duties. It has been an interesting debate and I welcome all the contributions that have been made, including the brief contribution of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). It is important that we should not allow the debate to become lop-sided, as it should reflect the variety of opinions that I hear in my constituency and across the country. It would not serve us well if all opinions were not given an airing and considered when discussing such important topics.

I say this with genuine sentiment: it is a difficult area for the Home Office and I have some sympathy with the Minister. In a written answer on 23 January, the Minister for Immigration and Asylum said

We are dealing with an amorphous issue and its precise scope is hard to define. The breadth of views should be borne in mind, as it is not the case that the arguments point emphatically one way or the other. I will spend the next five or 10 minutes discussing what considerations the Home Office needs to bear in mind when examining the issue in greater detail.

A plus side of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Dagenham is that, in this country, some people have double standards. Many people who are illegal migrants, particularly in big cities such as London, do jobs that many people who have lived in this country for much longer are not willing to do. We take their contribution for granted. They are often employed, for example, as office cleaners. I have no absolute proof that people who clean offices in London are illegal migrants, but I would be surprised if a large number of people who clean offices did not fall into that category. They turn up early in the morning before most people go to work and make the offices look smart and presentable.
20 Jun 2007 : Column 455WH
Employers in those offices, who no doubt earn considerably more money than those cleaners, take that service for granted. It would not be practical to do so, but for the purposes of illustrating my point, if those illegal migrants were pulled out tomorrow en masse and in one go, many people who had taken the work of illegal migrants for granted would suddenly notice that their lives became more difficult in practical terms. We would also have severe labour shortages.

The two factors that drive people to migrate and create an economic global dynamic were mentioned at the outset of the debate. In western Europe, we have had more than 15 years of continuous economic growth, and there is a low birth rate among the long-standing indigenous population. Both those factors create labour shortages and put pressures on the economy, particularly in low-skilled, low-paid jobs at the bottom of the labour market. The Government’s administration of the migration system is far from perfect, but they are working against a bigger backdrop of global economic factors that go beyond the immediate scope of any particular Government. That feeds into the wider debate: for example, many people who work in my constituency and are not United Kingdom citizens come from eastern Europe, particularly the new accession countries such as Poland. They fall into a different category from the people whom we are discussing but, none the less, they fill labour shortages in agriculture, fruit-picking, slaughter houses and other such jobs. They do not directly take work from people who have lived in the community for a long time but fill labour shortages that employers would otherwise be unable to fill.

The second point to be entered on that side of the ledger concerns practicalities. Last year, the think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, estimated that the cost of forced deportation, if we wished to go down that path, would be £4.7 billion. It is fair to say that that is an extremely unlikely, if not impossible, course of action for the Government, given the practicalities and the cost. We are therefore in a strange situation: an unsatisfactory state of affairs that has left a large number of people in a state of limbo is official Government policy by default because no alternative proposals are practical or financially viable. In its report, the IPPR states that regularising the work status of people who are illegal immigrants could annually

We could have a debate about that and dispute the accuracy of the IPPR figures, but there is an economic consideration to be borne in mind.

As mentioned by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), while we should bear in mind the fact that many illegal immigrants have chosen to be here, regardless of their immigration status, we should feel uncomfortable about the way in which they are routinely exploited. I have mentioned some of the reasons why the current situation is hard to sustain and some of the perfectly sensible factors, economic and otherwise, that are driving the phenomenon. It is worth looking at the other side of the ledger in my remaining few minutes. The economy and the declining birth rate are significant factors that have helped to drive illegal immigration. However, if one accepts that that is the case, one cannot argue that if the status of all illegal immigrants was legalised it would solve the problem. Economic factors and pressures on the birth rate would presumably drive another generation or successive numbers of illegal
20 Jun 2007 : Column 456WH
immigrants to fill labour shortages created by ongoing periods of economic growth, greater transport mobility and other factors that are hard for a single Government to control.

We must consider the need for proper border forces, proper entry and exit checks, proper surveillance at ports and other factors. People shy away from the word amnesty, but if the current status of illegal immigrants was legalised, the Government might say that it was a one-off decision that would not be repeated in future. However, people who have come here as illegal immigrants might reach the entirely rational conclusion that although that was what was previously said, the Government could change their mind and there is no reason why they would not do so in the future. Of course any Government would say that such a decision was a one-off. They would not say, “Well, we’re doing this now and we will probably do it again in future”. People who came here would be making not only a rational economic decision, but a rational citizenship decision, as they might think that when the Government said they were going to do it only once, they did not mean it as they had no choice but to give that impression.

People may be concerned, too, that legalising the status of illegal immigrants would be an award for illegal behaviour. Some individuals might have wished to come to the United Kingdom to live and work and become a citizen, but were deterred from doing so because they did not wish to undertake an illegal activity. It might be considered unfair that those who sought to avoid doing anything illegal should be penalised while people who made a different decision would not be penalised. People who have lived in this country for a long time might be unhappy about the pressure on services as a result of giving legal status to people whose immigration status is currently illegal. In conclusion, we all agree about the malign effects of the British National party. I feel as strongly about that as anybody, but the debate is nuanced. There are reasons why the Home Office could go down the path advocated by the hon. Member for Dagenham, but I can see that there are serious considerations that the Minister and others must bear in mind. However, today’s debate is a good starting point for reaching those conclusions.

10.40 am

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): Like everyone else, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) on securing the debate. I imagine that we are far enough through the process of his other endeavours for the last votes to be in the post by now, and I hope that I can wish him well without causing him undue damage.

The hon. Gentleman made a powerful case and, indeed, I have been lobbied, as, I am sure, the Minister has, by the Strangers into Citizens campaign. It makes a plausible case, articulately put. As we have heard, it has attracted support from both sides of the House and from a number of people outside.

It is particularly useful that my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and his committee in the Council of Europe will produce its report shortly, because clearly it is important to put the debate in a global context. We all know that the economic forces of globalisation and the increasing ease of travel between many parts of the world are leading to a worldwide
20 Jun 2007 : Column 457WH
increase in migration, both legal and illegal, and it is clear that any sensible Government policy will have to be put in that context. Equally, however, the case advanced by the hon. Gentleman has its opponents in all parties. I was struck when first I heard him advocate his case publicly on a “Newsnight” debate between the deputy leadership candidates. They were split themselves, and some of his colleagues spoke against his idea.

We have all had hard cases arrive at our constituency surgeries. I shall provide a vivid example of how this issue—not the point about regularisation or an amnesty in particular, but immigration generally—is rising up the agenda. In my constituency, which is a semi-urban, semi-rural one in east Kent, I recently held a surgery at which every case was about immigration. It was the first time that one issue had dominated an entire surgery completely. One might think that that could happen in some of our inner cities, but I was surprised that it happened in a constituency such as mine.

On the issues that have arisen, hon. Members said that we need to have the debate on a factual and honest basis. In that regard, I am slightly dubious about the number of them who simply said, “This is not an amnesty. We must not call this an amnesty.” Actually, it is an amnesty. Let us be honest! That is the proposal. The debate would be held at a higher level if we based it not only on the numbers involved, but on what we are calling for.

We need also to look at the context, which has been referred to several times. That context is the very large number of people in this country who have no right to be here. Inevitably, it is impossible to guess the exact number. Ministers have put a figure on it of something like 500,000—a slightly dubious figure based on an American technique of sampling from some years ago. I suspect that the figure is much higher than that. We must also ask ourselves, “Who are these people and why are they here?” Some of them have come here perfectly legitimately, but have simply overstayed, which will have been a rational and conscious decision. They will have decided to put themselves outside the legal process by doing that. My guess is that they will constitute the largest number.

Some will have been smuggled here illegally, but others—this group has been referred to already—will have come here, claimed asylum, often in the late 1990s and early years of this century, but still not have had their cases registered. It is impossible not to have a huge amount of sympathy for the latter group. We all know that that is appalling, not just because of the inadequacy of the Home Office response, but because of the human effects. There will be children in this country getting on for eight, nine, 10 or 11 who have never known another country, but who have no legal status in this one. Surely that is unacceptable.

Next Section Index Home Page