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17 July 2007 : Column 13WH—continued

10.21 am

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on securing the debate. He may be surprised to learn that I agree with quite a lot of his analysis, although I do not share some of his conclusions. To highlight the fact that there has been a quantitative shift in the scale of immigration into the United Kingdom, with massive knock-on effects on the public policy debate, seems to me to be stating the obvious. Other right hon. and hon. Members have claimed that the political class as a whole has been living in denial of that fact, and I certainly join them in that view and acknowledge that when the facts around us change as radically as they have done a political response is required.

I shall repeat some of the facts that underline my point: global migration has increased dramatically in the past 20 years and there are now 191 million people living in a country other than the one where they were born; 7.5 per cent. of the British population were born abroad; net immigration has risen exponentially since the mid-1990s to reach about 185,000 in 2005 alone, which is the equivalent of about 500 more people a day; we have heard figures suggesting that up to 600,000 workers have come from the new EU member states, although we do not yet know quite how many have returned; and just over 32 million overseas visitors came to Britain in the year to April 2007, which is twice as many as 20 years ago. Infamously, the Home Office has estimated that there are anything between 300,000 and about 600,000 irregular or illegal immigrants living in the United Kingdom. The sheer scale of what I have described is striking and new and has had a dramatic effect on public opinion. We know, from one opinion poll after another, that the salience of the issue of immigration is now far greater than it has been for a generation.

I accept, therefore, that a major public policy challenge exists. However, I do not share the three-point conclusions that the hon. Gentleman reached. I
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have never heard anyone explain—but perhaps the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleague will do so—how to turn immigration on and off like a tap and pull up the drawbridge for the nth new immigrant who arrives beyond the quotas unilaterally set by the Government of the day. I simply do not see how that is practicable. Equally, I understand that the perceived constraints placed by the European convention on human rights on the deportation of a very small number of individuals to countries where, let us remember, the relevant concern is that they will be tortured, is a raging preoccupation for many Conservative Members; however, given that the constraint applies, if at all, to a tiny handful of people, it is irrelevant to the issue of large-scale economic immigration to the United Kingdom.

There is a good and legitimate debate to be had about the restriction of benefits; as to some of the premises of that debate, about making distinctions between the benefits for those who have contributed to the system over a lifetime, and the benefits for those who have not, the issue may develop into how to determine the appropriate period of time to qualify a person for full benefits. It should be borne in mind—the Minister may be able to elaborate on this point—that qualification for or entitlement to benefits is already much more restricted than many people, I think, imagine, certainly for non-EU citizens.

Having said all that, it is worth recalling that there are still more British citizens living abroad than non-UK nationals living in this country. If people with second homes who spend a significant part of every year abroad are taken into account we are talking about nearly one in 10 of the British population living abroad permanently or for part of the time; it is a two-way process. One of the dangers of the kind of political debate that we could have about this subject, framed purely in terms of the threat that large-scale immigration poses, is that we may remain oblivious to the fact that British citizens benefit enormously from the mobility that now exists, particularly in the European Union. We would not want to deprive British citizens of that freedom, so we should not lightly deprive others of it.

Mr. Frank Field: The hon. Gentleman is noted for having an optimistic view of events; I have a slightly pessimistic one. Does he not also think that the growing number of people leaving these shores to live abroad are doing so because they are appalled by what is happening to their mother country?

Mr. Clegg: No. I do not share for a minute the idea that a Victor Meldrew-style disgust is leading to that outflow of people. It has been much to our credit that we are a people who have for decades—for centuries—travelled and lived abroad. We are an outward-looking, travelling and explorative nation, and that is a good thing. Perhaps issues such as climate weigh heavily with the large numbers of pensioners who seek sunnier climes in their retirement. I do not subscribe to the right hon. Gentleman’s enormously pessimistic view, but I have sympathy with him as a sufferer from it.

Perhaps I may take up a specific point with the right hon. Gentleman. He talked, and I agree, about the need for a debate about what it is to be British, or, more
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specifically, English. I could not agree more and I think that the challenges posed by large-scale immigration also throw up important questions about identity and integration and the values around which identity and integration are organised. I still happen to think, however, that openness to the outside world, tolerance towards others, acceptance of diversity, and an acknowledgement of the economic benefits brought about by economic immigration are part and parcel of a liberal identity that I cherish. It would be a crying shame if in our response to the new facts we were to throw the baby out with the bath water and not acknowledge that a liberal attitude to immigration is integral to what it is to be British.

Mr. Field: Of course I accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I want to probe further. Does he believe that that identity itself might lose out, given the current scale of immigration? Is it his view that we can and should do nothing to try to restrict it; that our means may be feeble but we should at least show the political will to do so; or that it is totally unimportant?

Mr. Clegg: No, I do not believe that it is a process of policy neglect or that the response should be a throwing up of the hands and to take a laissez-faire approach. I do not suggest that we should simply allow large-scale immigration to take its natural course in an unmanaged fashion—quite the reverse. If any kind of halting consensus is emerging in this political debate, it is that, given the sheer scale of inward immigration, we must ensure that it is managed. I freely acknowledge that unmanaged immigration can have negative consequences, not only for the immigrants, who may be subject to illegal trafficking, criminality and discrimination, but to the anxieties, fears and, sometimes, prejudices, of the host nation. That brings me to the latter part of my comments and some of my questions for the Minister. How should we manage the process and ensure that immigration on that scale is a positive and managed process and not an uncontrolled, unmanaged and negative process?

Mr. Field: I thought that we were agreeing, but then the hon. Gentleman tucked into his last sentence his acceptance of immigration on that scale. Does he believe that we should try to reduce the current scale of immigration or not?

Mr. Clegg: There are perfectly legitimate circumstances in which we should refuse to allow certain people into this country for stated reasons. If I am a pessimist, it is in this respect: I have not yet heard of a system that is sufficient in its watertight rigour to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests and somehow set an arbitrary limit and then pull up the drawbridge at the Dover coast. I challenge him to explain exactly how he would do that. We are dealing with a global phenomenon of a mass movement of people across borders, which is altogether more complex, but that process can be managed if we have an efficient, fair and effective system. My criticism of the Government is to ask why it has taken them 10 years to introduce a points-based system and the Border and Immigration Agency—steps that I welcome. Why do they propose not to reintroduce the exit controls that
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were abolished in 1994, so that we at least know who comes in and goes out, until 2014? That seems a lackadaisical approach.

Mr. Field: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clegg: May I finish these points before we descend into a bilateral debate?

Why do the Government still refuse to accept the case that has been made by both Opposition parties for a properly resourced and integrated border force? The Minister and I have argued across the Floor of the House many times about the virtues and vices of identity cards. Does he seriously believe that they will provide a panacea to all our ills when it comes to managing immigration? Does he accept that if there are, by his own estimation, up to 600,000 people living illegally in this country, even if we had the best controls and the tightest identity checks on the planet, we would risk driving an increasing number of people out of sight and out of mind altogether?

I come to a point that the hon. Gentleman made: if we are to manage the process properly, we need to plan for the effects of inward immigration. Much has rightly been said about the foot-dragging with which the Government have responded to the massive housing crisis, and I am curious to hear the Minister’s responses to the points that have been put to him about whether the new Prime Minister’s latest plans will be sufficient to deal with the long-term demand for housing.

I return to the legacy of the large numbers of people living invisibly and illegally in this country. What are we to do about them? The Conservative proposal that we should somehow deport those 600,000 people is utterly fanciful. Is it not time for us all to accept that as part of a more honest, candid and straightforward management of the process, we must find some way of creating a route, not an amnesty, by which earned regularisation is introduced? Will the Government consider urgently what local authorities tell us—that in areas with large numbers of new immigrants, the Government funding formula for local government simply does not reflect their particular needs? Indeed, there is a time lag of about three years between such demands being placed on local authorities and the resources being provided to them by the Government.

I know that others wish to speak, so I shall make my final points. The issue of how to promote integration as well as immigration is all important. I agree with much that has been said about the need to tighten the requirements on proficiency in the English language. As the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) said, it is clearly contradictory to advocate that at the same time as cutting resources for English language learning. It might be time to revisit the “Life in the United Kingdom” test that is applied to people who seek to settle permanently in this country. Perhaps it should be extended to those who apply for long-term visas. The test could be made more practical so that those people are given more practical guidance on how to live in this country rather than being stuffed full of historical facts that might not be relevant to their everyday needs.

Finally, will the Minister reconsider the way in which the money raised from work permit fees is used? Perhaps it could be recycled to provide training to
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British workers who feel that their sectors are under particular pressure from an influx of workers from elsewhere. I understand that a UK work permit currently costs the employer £200 in comparison with the cost in the United States of just under $2,000. Does the Minister think that there is a case for increasing the cost of work permits, so that a fund can be created to retrain those who might be economically affected by the scale of inward economic immigration?

10.36 am

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) should be congratulated not only in the conventional manner on securing the debate, but on the tone in which he addressed the serious issues that he raised. Those few of us who are present agree on the importance of this issue and, I am sure, agree that mainstream politicians need to address it in a tone that is calm, moderate and fact-based. Two extremes too often intrude on this debate—hysteria, bordering on racism, and sentimentality— neither of which gives rise to good policy, so the tone is important, as is content.

My hon. Friend’s remarks were full of interesting content, much of which I completely agreed with, and parts of which I did not. I shall address all those points, but first I shall address the comments by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) about the importance of the debate, on which he was half right. Where he was wrong gives rise to an important lesson. He was right to say that the issue is hugely important and that there is a feeling out there that mainstream politicians do not address it enough, but he was wrong to say that for a generation—I think he said 30 or 40 years—it has not been addressed as much as people would have liked. There have been periods in which immigration has been hugely salient as a political issue, of which now is one, and periods when it has not. It was hugely salient in the ’60s and early ’70s, but not in the ’80s and ’90s, because the general public thought that immigration was under control in those years and was therefore a problem at least temporarily parked if not solved. Therefore, people did not have the anxiety about it in the ’80s and ’90s that they had in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and have now.

That brings me to my first point—numbers matter. One of the most absurd things that the Minister’s predecessor did was to accuse me, in my early months of shadowing his job, of playing the numbers game. Immigration is essentially a numbers game; numbers absolutely matter in this field as much as they do in welfare and economic policy. That kind of unthinking response to the debate on immigration has given rise to a lack of public confidence. Therefore, Conservatives seek proper control of the numbers as the absolute basis for restoring public confidence in the immigration system. That confidence has been completely lost.

The Minister made a good point earlier this year when he said that immigration makes Britain richer, but that it has also unsettled the country. He went on to say:

My contention is that the Government have failed to solve the paradox, but the Minister is still in post. I am sure that delights him—at least it means that we have somebody sensible tackling this paradox.

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I will now turn to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex. The rate of change matters. Changes in the global economy—or globalisation as we glibly call it—have had some effect, but what is often not addressed is how many of those changes will stay. There is an intellectual current growing that says that most of the people who are coming to the UK, particularly from other parts of the European Union, are coming for a short time. The truth is that we do not know whether that is the case.

The evidence is that an increasing proportion of those people are deciding to stay. In the early months of the arrival of those from the A8 countries, particularly from Poland, about 20 per cent. of them said that they intended to stay permanently. If the same question was asked now, the figure would have gone up to about 25 per cent. That is intuitively plausible; as people live here, they will form relationships, come to like this country and will say, “Perhaps I will spend much of my life here.” We must presume that a smaller proportion will go home than the Government assumed.

We need to look at some of the knock-on effects. The head of the national organisation of Poles in this country has told me that it is now impossible to get a Polish plumber in Warsaw. There are now so many in western Europe that when someone calls for a plumber in Warsaw, they end up with a Romanian, Bulgarian or Ukrainian. Therefore, we must look at our wider obligations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex did not just talk about the issue—he gave policy suggestions. He talked about benefits. I will leave the Minister to answer that issue in detail. The important point is that the public at large have very little understanding of the difference between contributory and non-contributory benefits. If people think that large numbers are gaining access to benefits that they feel they receive because they have been contributing to them for many years, a sense of unfairness will arise. That in itself would be very damaging for community cohesion, so it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that that sense of unfairness is mitigated in every way possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex talked about the European Court of Human Rights. He will be aware, and I am happy to confirm, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has said that he seeks a reappraisal of human rights legislation. The Conservative party is considering whether a British Bill of Rights might be a more appropriate way to proceed in a world that has changed in the half a century since the ECHR was created. We seek no diminution in what all of us would recognise as human rights. We would like those rights set in a more appropriate context for a vastly different and fast-changing world in the 21st century.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) said he thought that that was irrelevant to mass immigration because it affected only a very few people. It may affect only a few people, but some of those people may be very important in the life of this country—they may be serious terrorists. Even if one person whom the British authorities regard as a threat to the safety of life in this country cannot be deported, that would cause a huge lack of confidence in the immigration system more widely and the system that
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surrounds it. That is why the issue is important, even if the numbers affected are not very large.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex said that he effectively wanted to manage this down to zero net immigration, but I must part company with him as I do not see the magic in that. If the economy benefits from immigration, rationally we should seek a level of immigration that maximises the benefit. At the same time, we should recognise that there will be strains on infrastructure and so on—he mentioned that—and thus we should seek an optimal level. It is not clear that the optimal level will be zero every year. There may be perverse periods—for example, if the economy went into recession for several years—that might increase the amount of emigration. At such a stage, it would seem perverse if that in itself permitted a higher degree of immigration when the labour market would be least able to provide jobs for new immigrants.

Although I do not agree on the zero net figure, I agree with my hon. Friend that we need an explicit limit. He, like other hon. Members, will be aware that the Conservative party advocates an explicit limit. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said that he does not see how that could work—I can suggest only that he gets out more, because it works in other countries. Many other countries have such a system and it works perfectly well. There is a greater level of public confidence in their immigration systems than exists in this country. Our proposition is that there should be an explicit limit every year, taking into account the social and cohesion factors, the ability of the public infrastructure to cope and the needs of the economy at the time.

We would expect the current limit to be substantially less than the present level of immigration, because we observe all the strains and stresses that have been mentioned today and see that in certain parts of the country the public infrastructure simply cannot cope. We advocate extending the Government’s points-based system so that we are trying to accept only people who are economically beneficial. On top of that there needs to be an explicit limit, because without one the points-based system will be meaningless; it will not increase public confidence or do what is necessary to ensure the radical change that we need.

All the points that colleagues from all parties have made about better enforcement are true. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam that we need proper border police. As he knows, we have a commission examining that. It is chaired by one of the Government’s own security advisers, so we hope that eventually we shall tease the Government on to our ground on that matter.

In conclusion, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex that there is a better way than the current system. It entails more control, better border policing and tighter criteria. It will mean not only a more manageable immigration system, but greater community cohesion, as the capacity to absorb new arrivals in this country is taken seriously for the first time. He will have to wait for its introduction, but I promise him that it will arrive one day.

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