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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 17 July 2007

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]


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

9.30 am

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I last initiated a debate on immigration matters in this House on 18 March 2003. The then Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, who is now the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, dismissed pretty much out of hand the serious and detailed points that Conservative Members made to her. Events have proved that she was totally wrong to do so, for this is a matter of the greatest and most profound concern to all our constituents, and I very much regret that it has been often inadequately and always insufficiently addressed in the House of Commons. I am thus grateful for this opportunity to return to a matter of such gravity for the country.

I was taken by an article in The Observer on Sunday by Henry Porter. He correctly made the point that our British way of life is

We often forget that Britain is a successful and largely good-natured society despite having to absorb 2 million or more people from scores of countries around the world over the last 10 years.

He went on to state:

We should all rejoice at that, but ahead lie some dangerous shoals that could threaten the harmony. The issues must be dealt with and debated more regularly, in a calm and sensible manner.

There have been many debates about asylum but it is no longer the main issue. The principle of asylum for genuine cases is not disputed in this House. In any case, those numbers are now, thankfully, coming down: asylum now accounts for only some 6 per cent. of net foreign immigration. Nor is the debate about our existing legal immigrant communities. They are a valued part of our society, and they have enriched and often greatly enhanced it.

The serious issue for this House and for our country is the sheer scale of immigration that is now taking place. It is utterly misleading to claim, as some do, that people became used to immigration in the past and will do so again. The present scale of immigration is absolutely without precedent in our history. There have been only two major waves of immigration since the Norman conquest in 1066: the Huguenots in the late 17th century, and the Jewish refugees in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both those migrations were spread over 50 years, and both amounted to less than 1 per cent. of the population of Britain at the time. With foreign
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immigration currently running at 300,000 a year, we are now receiving an additional 1 per cent. of our population every two years. In other words, annual net foreign immigration is now 25 times higher than it has ever been in the past, even at the two peaks.

Talk of Britain as a nation of immigrants is absurd. It would be much more accurate to describe us as a nation of emigrants. Indeed, the number of emigrants exceeded the number of immigrants until the 1980s. Net immigration is a new phenomenon and initially was quite small. Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, it hardly exceeded 50,000 a year. Since 1997, however, it has quadrupled to some 200,000 a year. Even that number makes little allowance for immigration from eastern Europe. In 2005, it was assessed as a net inflow of 64,000—a figure that today looks remarkably low. None of those numbers include any allowance for illegal immigrants, who are believed to comprise at least half a million people.

The sharp increase in immigration is no accident. To suggest, as Ministers do, that it is all a result of the fall of communism or of globalisation is, frankly, bizarre. The numbers point clearly to a massive increase since the present Government came to power in 1997. Part of the increase is due to their failure during their first five years in office to get a grip on asylum claims, of which more than 60 per cent. were eventually judged to be unfounded. Another part is due to their decision to allow a massive increase in work permits, which have trebled since 1997. At the same time, their decision in June 1997 to abolish the primary purpose rule has led to the number of spouses admitted to Britain doubling from 20,000 to 40,000 a year.

Those policy shifts have had a substantial impact on our population. Just over 1 million people have been granted British citizenship in the past 10 years. Net foreign immigration during that period was more than 2 million people, or 600 a day. That rate of immigration cannot be sustained without the most profound changes occurring in our society.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My hon. Friend has raised an important subject in a calm and considered manner. I am delighted that he has recognised the importance and value of immigrants. Is he aware that since I came into Parliament—

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Which time?

Bob Spink: The first time. We have an additional 300,000 immigrants each year. At the same time, we have a Government who are paying to keep out of employment about 17 per cent. of the potential work force, and we have a critical housing shortage. Does my hon. Friend link those matters together, and does he think that policy should control them?

Mr. Soames: I am always grateful to my hon. Friend for his interventions, but, if I may, I shall come to those matters in my own time.

Looking ahead, the Government’s projections anticipate that we will add 1 million to our population every five years. Of that increase, 83 per cent. will be due to new immigrants and their descendants. Even that forecast is based on the cautious assumption that immigration will fall by about 30 per cent. from its
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present level and remain flat. It is still too early to judge how many east Europeans will turn out to be temporary visitors and how many will stay on as immigrants. However, it is at least possible that they will sharply increase the pressure on our population.

If proof were needed, consider the Prime Minister’s speech to the House last week. After 10 years in government, he has discovered that there is a housing crisis, particularly in respect of affordable homes. Why? Because for years, demand has outstripped supply. The Government have permitted—indeed, encouraged—the arrival of 2 million immigrants since 1997, but have completely failed to build the necessary houses or the wider social infrastructure that is so vital. They have not even built enough social housing to match the number of grants that they have made of asylum and other forms of protection. All those people qualify for social housing and many, but not all, will take it up.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an important point. I wonder whether he heard the Prime Minister interviewed by John Humphrys on the “Today” programme last week. The Prime Minister said that he recognised that demand was outstripping supply, but completely ignored Mr. Humphrys when he suggested that immigration may have played some part in that. Does my hon. Friend think that the Prime Minister is in denial in respect of the points that he so rightly raises?

Mr. Soames: I do not know whether the Prime Minister is in denial, but it is a fact that the Government persistently refuse to discuss the matter in public. They adopt what I understand is called in America the “ostrich” defence.

Looking ahead, the Prime Minister trumpets his plan to build 3 million houses by 2020. Many of them will have to be on greenfield sites. What he omitted to mention was that 1 million of them will be not for existing immigrants, who are now a valuable part of our community, but for new immigrants, and that even that vast number depends on the Government’s assumption that immigration will fall by 30 per cent. from present levels, and stay flat thereafter.

Housing is vital to the future of every family in this country. It is now unaffordable for key workers in many parts of the country, and millions of young people are unable to get on the housing ladder. The Government’s record on housing is a miserable tale of incompetence and is a complete failure of joined-up government. That record has largely resulted from their failure to face up to the practical consequences of mass immigration, but it is also a result of the failure of Members to talk about key national issues in the House in a sensitive and intelligent manner. That failure is reflected in the media, including the BBC, which reported the proposal to build 3 million houses without even mentioning the I-word. The BBC’s present work on impartiality should lead it to ensure that the basic facts about immigration are clearly and accurately set out. Dodging sensitive issues is simply not good enough, either for the BBC or for us.

The infrastructure of schools, hospitals and roads must also be considered because immigration levels
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mean that we are committing ourselves to building a city the size of Birmingham every five years. International migration flows are predominantly to England—the most densely populated part of the United Kingdom—which is already four times as crowded as France and 12 times as crowded as the United States. Pressure on public services will also inevitably grow. The health service is facing additional strain, not only because of numbers and the need for interpretation services, but because some of our new arrivals require major treatment. Immigrants have certainly contributed a great deal to our health service. However, although the flow of indigenous doctors and nurses has improved, they now have difficulty securing entry-level positions because they have been filled by immigrants.

The pressure on our education system has also increased, not only because of the numbers of immigrants, but because many pupils arrive with no English. Clearly, the local authorities most affected must be helped to deal with those problems. However, it has become abundantly clear that our statistical information is completely inadequate to trace the flow of migrants around the country. Indeed, the Minister and I have been in protracted correspondence about the Government’s absolute failure to formulate any idea of how many people fail to turn up after they have been granted temporary admission, and then fail to show again. In any case, the only effect of central Government subsidy is that the taxpayer, rather than the ratepayer, pays. The costs still fall on our society.

Understandably, there is also major concern about, and question mark over, social cohesion. Migrants now arrive at a rate of nearly one a minute. All those people need to be integrated into our society, and it is clearly impossible to achieve that at the present rate and in the current situation. Indeed, some immigrants choose, for entirely understandable reasons, to join people of their own origin. Unfortunately, that leads to the development of parallel lives. In September 2005, Trevor Phillips, when he was head of the Commission for Racial Equality, said that we are “sleepwalking into segregation”. He has since warned that the degree of segregation in parts of our country is wholly unacceptable.

The follow-up report on Oldham, which was written five years after the riots in that town, expressed similar anxieties. Its key finding was:

What lies behind that is that, in the next 15 years, the Pakistani heritage population is expected to increase by 50 per cent. and the Bangladeshi population by 70 per cent. Meanwhile,the white population will decline slightly. That is just one example of the pressure building up in some of our cities

The Government claim that massive levels of immigration are justified by the economic benefits. Certainly, there are some benefits: wage inflation has been held down, interest rates are lower than they might have been, and economic growth is slightly faster. However, most of the benefit goes to immigrants themselves. The benefit to the native British population in terms of gross domestic
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product per head is extremely small, even according to the Government’s own calculations. They keep changing their story, but they now claim that immigration adds 15 to 20 per cent. of trend growth which, in turn, is now 2.75 per cent. The arithmetic shows that that amounts annually to around 73p per head per week, at the most. Similar results have been found in major studies in the US, Canada and Holland. I challenge the Government to produce any evidence that immigration makes a significant difference to GDP per head, and therefore to the indigenous population.

As I have said, the reality is that most of the economic benefit goes to the immigrants themselves, which is, of course, why they come. The Government persistently duck the central issue of benefit to our own community. There are, of course, benefits that cannot be measured, such as those of a social and cultural nature, and perhaps a greater propensity for people to innovate. Social costs are becoming more widely understood, and a survey that the Institute of Directors conducted of its members in February this year noted that 85 per cent. agreed that immigration policy should take account of the impact on public services and housing. Some 80 per cent. agreed that it should also take account of the effect on social cohesion.

It is often argued that immigration fills skills gaps and thus contributes to the smooth running of companies and the economy. There is something in that, but in the long term, immigration cannot be the answer to skills shortages. As the Confederation of British Industry recognises, the key must lie in training and retraining our own work force, which consists of some 30 million people. Only recently, on 5 June 2007, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce warned that

Other arguments put forward by the Government are simply false. The suggestion that immigration is of any significant help in paying our pensions was dismissed out of hand by the Turner commission, which reported that:

The public sense that there are falsehoods in the Government’s arguments. Two thirds of people simply do not believe them, and 75 per cent. want an annual limit on immigration. That is the point to which I shall now turn. I believe that an annual limit is the key to restoring public confidence in our immigration system, which is now at rock bottom. My first proposal is that the level of net foreign immigration be managed downwards until it is close to the level of British emigration, which is running at about 100,000 a year and has doubled under this Government. Such a policy would mean that we were no longer adding to our population through immigration, and would relieve the pressure on our infrastructure and public services. That would require a reduction in the number of work permits, a tightening of the regulations on family reunion and much stronger efforts to remove failed asylum seekers.

It is important to recognise that limits cannot be applied to citizens of the European Union—which
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is not, as some allege, a matter of racism, but a consequence of treaties signed by British Governments of all political persuasions. The tough immigration policies that I advocate are not a matter of race. They would, for example, apply in the same way to Ukrainians and Ugandans, and to Americans and Indonesians. Fortunately, the omission of EU citizens from a new immigration regime would not be too serious. Migration to and from the EU14 is pretty well in balance. There was a blip when Spain, Portugal and Greece joined, but the numbers have now declined to a mere 22,000 a year. In the longer term, we can expect migration to and from the 10 new EU members to come into balance as their economies approximate to ours. Long-term pressure on immigration will come from the third world, where populations are rapidly expanding and employment opportunities for the young are sadly lagging well behind those in the EU. One measure of that is that visa applications have increased by 50 per cent. in the past five years.

Any immigration system is only as good as its ability to remove. We now find that the international human rights framework, which was established half a century ago and was brought into domestic legislation by the Human Rights Act 1998 nearly 10 years ago, has many serious unintended consequences. For example, it is making it extremely difficult for the authorities to remove from Britain people who have no right to be here and who, frankly, are abusing the hospitality and good will of our country. My second suggestion, therefore, is that a fundamental review of our membership of the European Court of Human Rights must be part of a new approach to immigration control.

My third proposal concerns the entitlement of non-EU citizens to welfare benefits. Under the transitional arrangements for the accession of eight EU countries, the Government sharply curtailed access to the welfare state for the first 12 months, but that will fall by the wayside at the end of the seven-year transition period, if not before. However, I believe that we should adapt this principle for wider use. We should deny full benefits to anyone who has not become a British citizen, or who has not worked in the UK for five years and been granted indefinite leave to remain. In other words, to enjoy the full benefits of the welfare state, a migrant would have to contribute significantly to the welfare state before being entitled to all its benefits, and/or have shown a commitment to becoming a British citizen by learning English and passing the citizenship test. Such a regime would go some way toward defusing the very strong sense of unfairness felt by those who have paid into the system for many years, but seen others benefit more or less on arrival.

To sum up, we need a fundamental rethink of our immigration system. Muddling on as we are will only add to the pressures building up in our society. I have made three proposals: an annual limit to immigration close to the level of emigration, a fundamental review of our membership of the ECHR, and a restriction of welfare benefits for those who have not contributed for five years. Finally and very importantly, we need more of an effort in this House and more widely in Britain, and we need to have a cool, sustained and serious debate on immigration, which has been long-promised but is long overdue.

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