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9.52 am

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on calling this debate. I am pleased that this Minister will be replying because he is by far and away the most impressive Minister on immigration, and shows all the signs of attempting to turn around this huge oil tanker, although those who navigate such ships tell me that it takes time.

I shall begin on a slightly discordant note. The debate on immigration is rated by constituents as one of the most important. And yet look! Although I am grateful that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex is being supported by three Back-Bench Conservative Members, no Liberal Democrat Member is here to support their spokesman, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). I do not know whether the Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), will be frog-marched into contributing to this debate, but no other Labour Member, besides the Minister, is present. Yet this is, for our constituents, one of the key issues that we are facing, and they think that we should represent their views more adequately.

I disagree also with the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex on his very firmly fixing the culture of blame to the Government. I would throw the net wider, although he would reply, “Well, he would say that”. However, I believe also that we are fighting, in the political classes, a frame of mind that is unwilling, perhaps, to suggest that it might have been mistaken in what it has prattled about for the last 30 years. Indeed, perhaps the Minister would take a message back to his Cabinet colleagues. In the statements of relief that the last bombing episode had not wrought the evil on innocent people that had been intended, Cabinet Ministers told us to be vigilant. The report back from my constituents in Birkenhead market was: “What a damned cheek that they should lecture us on vigilance!” If the political class had been a little more vigilant in the past, and responded to their regular doubts and worries about the level of immigration, we might not, they said, be listening to such statements from Cabinet Ministers. So a little less from the political leadership about those on the receiving end of that lack of vigilance from the political class would be much welcomed.

Bob Spink: While the right hon. Gentleman is talking about political leadership, there is the small matter of deportation, which relates to immigration control. I believe that he was in the Chamber when the Home Secretary told me that, over the last two years, only nine people had been deported from this country on national security grounds. Was the right hon. Gentleman astounded by that? Does he think that that shows a failure of political leadership, given that currently almost 2,000 people are under surveillance in this country for possible terrorist activity, and that so many leave our prisons each year?

Mr. Field: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I was in the Chamber at that time, because I asked whether we would track those leaving this country to go to terror camps abroad, and prevent their re-emergence in this country. The Home Secretary’s view was that the Government had not yet contemplated such a move,
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which I think suggested a lack of urgency that might haunt her as time goes on. But if I may, I shall return to that matter.

I am grateful, for another reason, to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex for calling this debate. I wanted to present the information that he did—I shall not repeat it—in a slightly different context. We need a debate on both our national identity and, linked to that in a horrible way, our national security. I represent a seat little affected by those early waves of Commonwealth immigration. However, it includes many vulnerable people, and many others who are not vulnerable, who feel that without any debate or consultation with them, what it means to be English and to have an English identity in this country is changing. As a political class we can of course pretend that that is not happening below the surface, but we must not be surprised if, at the end of the day, events overtake us the consequences of which might shock us. The charge against all of us, not only this one Government, is that we have remained so confident about our national identity that we feel that it does not need to be renewed.

That is the case on a macro level, but we have done the same on a micro level. We have taken it for granted that just because in the past this country was very successful in nurturing children, we do not really have to pay much attention to it in the future. Well, we jolly well need to pay attention to how we nurture children, so that they become first-class citizens and contribute to the community. Likewise, we need to think much more carefully about the very nature of Englishness or, as the Prime Minister, for obvious reasons, would prefer us to call it, “Britishness”—although most people are not fooled by that and insist on Englishness, because after all we are still the majority in this country, despite figures that we have heard.

My constituents are appalled by the way that we treat citizenship: our lack of regard, our failure to think that citizenship should be treasured and nurtured. They reject totally the dominant view among the political classes that have ruled this country for 30 or 40 years that citizenship is like a trip round the supermarket—the idea that we can pick up the bits that we want and reject those that we do not like. That is not to condemn any of those who have behaved in that way. The condemnation is against us, in that we could have acted otherwise but failed to do so. I am sometimes shocked when I hear colleagues criticising groups that have arrived here more recently for their behaviour. Given that in the past we did not care tuppence how they behaved, it seems a bit rich that we should now be getting upset about some of the ways that they present themselves visibly in our community. The debate is of course about numbers, but it is also about what it means to create and maintain a community. If the Government do not change track very smartly on this issue, the sense of national identity might be lost, and then we are in totally new territory. None of us knows what it will be like to try to govern, or what the consequences of failing to be able to govern will be.

I thought that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was modest in the figures that he gave—they do not tally with the figures that I have tried to compute in this area—but he is right to say that we are at a loss to know the precise numbers of people coming and going. One would have thought that that would be a first
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requirement of those who have a duty to defend our borders. The rate is certainly speeding up, as the hon. Gentleman said. In the last three years for which we have data, the number of people coming to this country is about 2 million and the number leaving is about 1 million. I do not subtract one from the other and say, “Oh, there is a net increase of only this sum.” Those figures are changing the stock of people in this country. Therefore, one has to bear in mind both those forces.

In these circumstances, what might the Government do? I return to the intervention by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink): we need to regain control over our borders on a much sharper timetable than the one that the Government have announced for action on this front. We should do so with the sense of urgency that most of our constituents have. I look forward very much to hearing what the Minister says on that.

I do not exclude, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex did in opening the debate, movements from eastern Europe. I beg him to look at those figures again and not merely to mock those clever people who told us that when we opened the borders only 13,000 people would come from Poland and other countries. Poland has an honourable history of supporting us in times of need and I am not one to disregard that lightly, but with all those who do not have to register for work because they are self-employed and those who are bringing families here, we may have had, from that first wave of immigration when we opened our borders, about 1 million people coming from eastern Europe. I do not believe that is sustainable, nor do I believe the line that the apologists trot out that most people are going home, because we now know that most people are not going home. Of course, it is a huge compliment to this country that people want to come here, want to stay and want to contribute. I do not doubt any of their motives or their good intent, but I return to the question whether it is sustainable at this level.

Of course the Government could say, as the hon. Gentleman did, that we signed treaties, but we signed treaties about the free movement of people in a single market when the countries with which we were signing those treaties had similar standards of living to our own. We have now extended our borders, for good reasons but also political reasons, and it is not sustainable to have those open borders within Europe when some countries will not begin to approach our current living standards until a time when all hon. Members who contribute to this debate have long since ceased to exist in this world. The Government have to begin a conversation with our partners in Europe about whether they think, along the same lines as some of us in this debate, that the future of the European Union is an unsure one if we continue blindly to turn our eyes away from what is now a mass movement of people within Europe, as well as what the hon. Gentleman talked about, which was people coming from beyond the European borders.

That is my first plea, which links to the point that in a sense the hon. Member for Castle Point allowed me to make as a result of his intervention. We need, as a matter of urgency, to be able to trace people from this country into Europe and from Europe to the terror training camps, which are largely but not exclusively in Pakistan. Not to do so now, given the number of warnings that we have had, will reflect—let me put it
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euphemistically—very badly on the Government who are in power. That is my second point.

My third proposal is that we should insist that anyone coming here should speak English; that should be one of the requirements. I say that because I believe that it is crucial that people participate and, unless we do that, we are allowing people to be subjected to all sorts of evil forces to which they should not be subjected. People who cannot speak English find it very difficult indeed to escape oppression once they are here if they are also restricted not by evil people, but by a different language.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I was waiting for the right hon. Gentleman to clarify what he meant by a requirement to speak English for those coming here. Would that cover people who came here temporarily as well, or is he talking only about those who seek to settle here permanently? If he is talking about the latter, I totally agree with him. I wonder whether it is realistic to suggest that anyone who comes through the terminals of Heathrow airport should speak English.

Mr. Field: No, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, there are different categories here and we do have a group of people who—let us put it kindly—come here for a temporary stay and decide that it is so nice that they want to stay longer than that. Of course we do not want to test people who come into Heathrow and are to leave in a few days’ time, but insisting on an English language test would show how important our national identity is and is also important in terms of the way in which we wish to welcome people and our wish that they should be fully integrated into our community.

Fourthly, will the Government please become real about how immigration undermines other aspects of their policy? The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex touched on some of them. We all know that in our constituencies there are large numbers of people who, unless we radically change our approach to housing, will never, ever, ever have a decent home—and they scale down all the time what they mean by decent, given the terms of trade under which they have to barter. It is absurd for the Government to say that they are trying to increase significantly the amount of affordable housing for people here if we have an open-doors policy and are adding significantly to the number of people who, naturally, want to live in decent circumstances and whom we would wish to live in decent circumstances. There is clearly a conflict there.

There is also a conflict with the totally proper wish of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and now Prime Minister to take this country’s skills base upmarket. If only employers would behave differently. If there is an endless supply of cheap labour—although the labour may in the workers’ own countries be deemed skilled—there is no incentive whatever to try to raise the skills base in this country and match that new skills base with an increase in the capital formation. If we do not do that, this country’s long-term future is doomed. There is no way that most of our younger constituents will find work over the coming decades if we do not significantly raise our game, but there will be no pressure to do so if employers have an endless supply of willing and hard-working cheap labour.

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My last proposal, which takes us back to one that has already been made, is that we should be much more serious about welfare, not because we want to crack down or be unpleasant to people, but because the feeling of having contributed to the building up of certain institutions and provisions and, therefore, the feeling of owning them are part of being English, Welsh or Scottish. We are undermining one of the cornerstones of our society by allowing Tom, Dick and Harry to qualify under certain conditions—perhaps for the best reasons in the world—when others believe that one should first make a significant contribution to the community and that they have done so either as individuals or through their families. Not requiring people to make a contribution strikes against other people’s sense of fairness. In the long run, those with sharper elbows will not defend the institutions that are crucial to the poorest members of our society if they feel that those who come to this country are getting as good a deal as, or a better deal than, the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people who have been resident here for a long time and who—either as individuals or through their families—have contributed to those institutions.

I am grateful that we have had this debate, but I end on the note on which I began—

Bob Spink: Before the right hon. Gentleman finishes, will he allow me to make one more point? I was waiting for him to raise one more issue, but he has not. Unless the Government and the House address the implications of immigration issues, we will see the rise of fundamentalist parties, which will fill the vacuum. [Interruption.]That would be an extremely bad thing, not only for our society, but for the excellent immigrants who come here.

Mr. Field: Clearly, the hon. Gentleman was being prompted, but he responded very well.

I end by saying that I am appalled that the Chamber is not so full of people demanding to speak that there is standing room only. One advantage of that would have been that we would more adequately have reflected our constituents’ worries and concerns, but it would also have meant that I would have had to speak much more briefly.

10.12 am

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): I, too, heartily congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on securing the debate. Migration is, of course, a sign of economic success. It is also of great benefit to migrants themselves, as a recent World Bank report underlined.

As a London Member of Parliament, it is important that I contribute to the debate because London receives more than double the total amount of inward migration into the rest of the UK. It is particularly important that I contribute because the Border and Immigration Agency and the Electric house reporting centre for migrants are based in my constituency. Indeed, 40 per cent. of my casework relates to migration, and I am extremely grateful for the Minister’s assiduous responses to the cases that I raise with him.

It is important that Parliament should debate this issue. In other places, the approach has been weak and pusillanimous. Colleagues will know that I am also a
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member of the London assembly, and it is a great criticism of that organisation that it has felt unable during its seven years to conduct a proper investigation into what is such an important issue for London and that it has decided to have only a watching brief on it.

Migration and human trafficking are also important to me as a Croydon Member of Parliament, because Croydon Community Against Trafficking is a strong campaigner in my locality on the issues of human trafficking and the local sex industry, which is driven by human trafficking. The group has done good work to identify just how high a proportion of women in Croydon’s brothels are trafficked from overseas, and the figure is, indeed, 84 per cent. It also does important campaigning to raise awareness of the issue with the police and other public bodies. In addition, it is strongly campaigning to encourage the Croydon Advertiser and the Croydon Guardian to remove adverts based on the sex industry and human trafficking. It is unacceptable that those newspaper groups should secure profits on the back of such activity.

Important points have been made in the debate about the implications of migration policy for housing and worklessness. Worklessness among London’s indigenous population is an important issue. Where borders are relatively open in terms of migration, the combination of benefits payments and poor training among the indigenous population means that it is almost economically logical for others to be drawn into the London economy to provide the skills that are not available. That can lead to those in areas of great under-privilege becoming significantly resentful of the approach taken by those of us in the political classes, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) stated, and there is a great danger that we will be unable to engage properly on this issue or to give voice to it.

As a candidate in the last general election, I referred to the London plan and the recognition that housing pressures exist as a result of migration. I was concerned that that should have resulted in a complaint by my political opponent and that I should be spoken to by the local police service about the matter. When authorities make such directions to prevent mainstream politicians from having a reasonable, studied and careful debate about migration, that is an invitation to electors to support parties of the far right. That is why it is so useful and such good news that my hon. Friend has secured this debate.

Obviously, it is important for us to work with our European partners to deal with migration. It is good news that the European Union tries to discourage migration from outside the EU by opening up our markets to those in, for example, the Maghreb. In that way, we are likely to be able to ensure that incentives to migrate to the EU are reduced. It is also good news that there are EU initiatives on education and work and on encouraging the return of illegal migrants to outside the EU. However, I am glad that the Government are sceptical about giving up unilateral control over our own borders.

It is also important to recognise the significance of English, which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) raised in his intervention. There are real concerns about the effective integration of migrants into British society, given that support for
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English language training is being reduced for speakers of other languages. Such reductions are entirely counterintuitive, although I understand just how strong the demands on the service are. None the less, those reductions are themselves a reflection of the way in which there has been a loss of control over the numbers coming into the UK.

I strongly agree that it is time for us to consider constructively reducing the flows of migrants into the United Kingdom. Perhaps what is happening is the result of economic success; but economies go up and down, and it is quite reasonable for us, in our national interest, to be able to feel that we have some control over the amount of immigration into our country, and that that should be in the interest of our constituents.

More than a third of the present population of London were born outside the United Kingdom. It strikes me that the Government should have a view on what the percentage should be: does the Minister take the view that it should be the majority? The question whether the majority of residents of our capital city should have been born outside the UK strikes me as a fundamental aspect of public policy. It is important for us to regain control over our borders and reduce the rate of migration into the United Kingdom.

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