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There has been a gradual realisation of increasing disquiet about the numbers of immigrants coming into the country. For sure, much of this unease is articulated by recent immigrants themselves, who have most to lose from any social unrest. Political leaders have traditionally shied away from addressing this contentious issue, but now we hear the adoption of
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slogans such as “Immigration is too high and must be cut” or “British jobs for British people”.

Such superficially attractive solutions are not grounded in reality. For example, I believe that taking the easiest option to reduce the overall number of immigrants would be the most ill-advised route. Yes, we could substantially cut the number of immigrants by stopping all those who reside outside the EU coming to these shores, but we should consider the five main categories of people coming to live and often, but not always, to work here.

The first category is the ever expanding number of non-EU nationals, especially those working in highly skilled global industries such as financial services, the creative industries or IT and technology, where UK industry boasts such a leading position. No one could seriously suggest that a drastic reduction in that group would be advisable or desirable, whether in IT specialists from India and China, US investment bankers, or folk from Australia and New Zealand who work in the creative industries.

Similarly, we might relatively easily slash the number of non-EU students coming to study here, or prevent them from staying on to work here for a year post graduation, which was a Labour Government initiative that I wholly supported. Indeed, I would prefer to see rights for graduates from abroad to work here after studying extended. International students—especially those from India and China, the big economic superpowers of the future—will be more likely to return to their homeland as great ambassadors for this country if they have had the chance to study and to work here. It should be our strategy for the higher and further education that our educational establishments provide to students from across the globe to remain one of our greatest and most successful export industries.

The third category comprises the dependants and relatives of previous immigrants who often arrive with relatively few skills and little understanding of the English language. I accept that that issue continues to be sensitive. As someone who represents an inner-city seat, I deal with dozens of such cases. I support dealing more robustly with those who rely on family and marital ties, irrespective of their likely contribution to this country, but there are strong practical reasons why many of those immigrants will continue to come to these shores.

Fourthly, we could stop or drastically reduce the number of asylum seekers who continue to come here as political refugees. They amounted to some 25,000 last year, for example. I speak as someone whose mother was twice a refugee by the age of 15, so I do not intend to be harsh. We are, rightly, signatories to several international agreements and, short of withdrawing from those treaties, we need to recognise that genuine asylum seekers will continue to come and often remain here.

Finally, as other hon. Members have pointed out, the other major immigration influx has come in the past three and a half years since the enlargement of the EU, from Poland, the Baltic states and more recently—albeit with some tighter restrictions, which I support—from Romania and Bulgaria. Vast underestimates were made as to the numbers from EU accession states who would come to live and work in this country after May 2004. Yet there is absolutely nothing that we can do
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about it, because we are fully signed up to the concept of free movement of people within the EU.

Today with the large numbers of new immigrants from Europe, Africa and beyond we have little cheap housing and our health service, transport and educational infrastructures are under increasing strain, as we have gathered from contributions from Members on both sides of the House. Nor is it exclusively a problem in London. The disquiet about immigration, as was the case in the 1950s, is from everyday folk who feel that their quality of life is being badly affected by the increased need for housing, school places and other local services.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that the NHS in London would fall apart were it not for immigrants from many countries, including some of those he has mentioned?

Mr. Field: I very much accept that. One of the difficulties that a nationalised health service has, as a monopoly employer, is that it is able to drive wage rates down to levels that make jobs less acceptable to too many of the indigenous population. The hon. Lady is right, and I recognise what she says in both the hospitals in my constituency, Barts and St. Mary’s, Paddington. It would be impossible to run those hospitals without significant amounts of immigrant labour.

We seem to be at a loss as to what to do now. Over recent months, we have heard several slogans. Many argue that we should provide public services only to those new arrivals to these shores who have already made a financial contribution. Our public sector ethos—to which the hon. Lady referred—makes such a hard-and-fast rule unenforceable. None the less, the originators of our national health service never expected it to become the “free at the point of need” international health service. One statistic shows that the UK spent some £42 million this year on treating HIV-infected folk from abroad, even though some NHS trusts have massive deficits. Those deficits are not as big as they have been in previous years, but the point remains. At my local hospital—St. Mary’s, Paddington—it is estimated that more than £3 million was lost to NHS tourism last year. I am afraid that that sum represents a deterioration in the quality of health care offered to my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck).

Demographic change, especially at the pace of the past half decade, is a problem. I worry that what should be a great national debate on the potential benefits and drawbacks of immigration is likely to degenerate into a blizzard of statistics. Alongside that, I think that there will be a political imperative to set and reach annual targets of maximum quotas. In my view, that will lead to a distortion of statistics, priorities and our economic needs.

It came as no surprise to me that last week the Government recalibrated sharply upwards the numbers of immigrants working here. Within days, the total rose from 800,000 to 1.1 million and then to 1.5 million. No doubt the highest figure will be used as the baseline from which to measure success in bringing totals down in the years ahead, but I believe that that approach is entirely wrong. Our goal should be to encourage and reward hard work and the development of marketable skills among those brought up and living here. Equally, we should make it ever harder for people who are not
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prepared to contribute fully to our communities to come to, and remain in, the UK.

In that regard, business has an important role to play. Too often, businesses both large and small have ignored their broader responsibilities in respect of immigration. For sure, there is an ever expanding pool of willing immigrant labour that helps to drive down wage levels, along the lines that I set out earlier, with the result that business may have all too little incentive to look at some of the downsides of unchecked immigration. Many commercial concerns are only too happy to employ foreign labour without regard to the effects that that may have on the provision of health, education and transport in their community, but at the same time we condemn so many of our indigenous, home-grown youngsters to lives without jobs, practical education or training.

The operation of our benefits system has also helped to make it far less attractive for some British people to work full time. All too often, those people prefer to rely on tax credits or other benefits. Housing benefit in particular means that people, especially in the capital, need to earn considerably more than the minimum wage to make working worth their while. That cannot be right.

The unemployment rate in central London is 8.5 per cent., yet there are literally hundreds of thousands of people, from central Europe and beyond, working in this city of ours. We all know that it is impossible to get served in a bar or restaurant without meeting a Pole or a Lithuanian, or the like.

It is all well and good for the Government to boast about having increased the number of jobs in the country, and all the statistics suggest that they have done exactly that. However, in all too many cases, they have failed to ensure that Britons have the skills, application and aptitude to take up many of the new opportunities offered by the modern world. That failure is evident even after every pupil in this country has been through a dozen years of compulsory education. It is a shameful and disgraceful legacy.

The general economic picture has remained rosy, but we have turned a blind eye to the failure to educate an unacceptably large cohort of the younger generation. Today’s employment opportunities may well be snapped up by eager young men and women from central Europe, and economic growth may continue apace, but soon—perhaps very soon—there will be a reckoning. We now have millions of young British men and women growing up and leading perhaps chaotic lifestyles who are unable to offer the basic capabilities and aptitudes needed even in unskilled labour. If the UK wishes to remain a high-wage nation, we need all our people to have commensurately high skills.

The relatively clement economic picture has allowed us to turn a blind eye to many of the problems that I have described, but the refusal to arrest our educational failings has the makings of a long-term dysfunction in our society. The challenge may not be immediately apparent today, but I fear that in the years ahead we shall repent the fact that the first decade of the 21st century was very much the best of times. Our failure to respond to the deeper, long-term malaise that I have set out will haunt us in the decades to come.

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3.19 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I want to link communities and local government with environment, food and rural affairs through the issue of climate change. Local government can show us some good examples of the work that it is doing to tackle climate change. For example, more than 100 authorities have signed the Nottingham declaration or its equivalent, committing their communities to living their lives more sustainably. It can also show us bad examples. I mentioned in an intervention the number of renewable energy proposals that are stuck in local government planning systems. The British Wind Energy Association says that more than 150 applications for wind farms are currently waiting for a decision by local authorities and some wait several years for a decision.

In this House at least, we are all agreed that for our country it is essential that we get to a low-carbon future. For some people, the clinching argument is the finite nature of carbon-based fuel resources. Clearly, they will be unable in the future to sustain the growing economies and populations of the nations of the world. For many more people, the clincher is climate change itself. People see the danger of increasingly unpredictable extremes of weather—great changes in patterns of temperature and water. Damage is already in train as a result of historic emissions. That is why a policy of adaptation is so important to our country. We recognise that we have to act now to avoid cataclysmic outcomes later down the line.

So here in the UK at least, we all agree where we need to go—to a low-carbon future—but the debate is about how we get there and at what speed. However, it is right to lift up our eyes and look at the international dimension because it adds so much to the complexity of the decisions that we make. Clearly, global warming is a global challenge. Our contribution to global warming is so small that, however high our targets for reductions in emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases, we will not on our own solve the problems of the world. But we can show a lead; we can agree that because of our historic emissions and our ability as a developed country, we can and should do more for the rest of the world. The greatest gift that we can give to the world is to point to our years of continued sustained economic growth decoupled from growth in our emissions. That can reassure parts of the world that are still not convinced that by having a good environmental record they will not in some way damage economic and social progress for their populations.

My view is that we get to a low-carbon future through major programmes of energy efficiency, resource use efficiency and new technologies for renewable energy, waste minimisation, recycling and water management. My view about the speed we should move at is that it should be very quick. There are three components to how we move quickly. One is the legislative framework, the second is technological transformation, and the third is behavioural change.

I start with the legislative framework. It is true that the Climate Change Bill is a great achievement. It will make us the first nation in the world to impose legally binding carbon reduction targets on ourselves. Of course, the Bill will simply set that obligation; it does not contain the measures by which we will meet them. Similarly, just as the climate change committee and
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carbon budgets are very innovative, they are not the tools by which we will reduce emissions. We must look elsewhere for the policy instruments. Some of them are economic instruments—taxes, tax reliefs, grants and so on, many of which are to be found in Finance Bills. We must look at the regulation that we introduce to correct the inadequacies of the markets on which we would otherwise rely to drive the changes to achieve that low-carbon future.

Such regulations will include the standards that we impose on the building of new homes and commercial premises and on the amount of renewable energy that is included in new developments. Currently, thanks to Merton local authority, several local authorities have progressive policies on that. It is to be hoped that the guidance that the Government have promised will amount to Merton-plus rather than abolition of Merton. We need to watch and ensure that that is right.

Other regulations will need to give the regulator of the energy industries the right aims. The remit of the regulator now is such that energy companies maximise their success by persuading us all to consume more and more finite energy resources. In future, we need to reward them for persuading us to save and conserve those resources. We need to add to the remit the issues that are so important in the rest of our energy policy—tackling climate change and paying attention to security of supply. In our casework, we all hear about people’s delays in obtaining connections to the national grid for forms of generation—sometimes imaginative ones—from renewable energy sources. It must be part of the regulator’s job to confront and overcome those delays.

We need to consider how we can achieve greater coverage of renewable energy in the creation of electricity and heat and in transport. In the UK, the main mechanism is the renewables obligation, which we are not likely to change in the near future. However, the consultations we held last year about changes to the structure of the obligation are important and need to be implemented as soon as possible.

The contents of the Queen’s Speech give us the opportunity to do something about all the regulations I have described. It includes Bills on energy, housing and regeneration and planning reform, as well as the draft marine Bill that several Members have already mentioned. As the Conservative spokesperson said, the marine Bill goes hand in hand with our work on tackling climate change; it also goes hand in hand with planning reform, because in future we face the prospect of an infrastructure planning commission and a marine management organisation that will have a say over marine developments. The marine Bill needs to be on the same level as the climate change and planning reform Bills.

The Climate Change Bill will include significant provisions for tackling climate change, such as the incorporation of international aviation and shipping in our targets for reducing carbon emissions. The measure will enable the introduction of secondary legislation for new emissions trading schemes in the future, such as a carbon reduction commitment or a household energy supplier obligation. Less controversial at present—although I predict they will be more so when we get to them—are the Bill’s adjustments to the road transport fuel obligation. There will also be permission for the
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pay-as-you-throw pilots requested by the Conservative-controlled Local Government Association. I suspect that we shall want to give all those issues close attention.

Apparently, we shall not be giving close attention in the Climate Change Bill to personal carbon trading; we shall not even be authorising secondary legislation for it. However, I hope we shall continue to debate the possibility of personal carbon trading and indeed to press for it, because it could be significant in changing behaviour in the future.

That is the legislative framework. I was a member of the Committee that carried out pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Climate Change Bill. In our report, we described the measure as the first step along the way to a low-carbon future for the United Kingdom—words that were quoted with approval by the Government in their response. No one should think that by passing a single Climate Change Act we shall solve the problem of tackling climate change. It is but the first step and I am certain it will be followed by further legislative efforts and many more measures to achieve our objectives.

Technological transformation involves a move from the carbon-based fuels on which we relied in the past to renewable fuels in the future. It means a commitment from all of us to our science, engineering and manufacturing capabilities, encouraged by the announcement in the pre-Budget report of the new package for the UK element of the environmental transformation fund.

The other issue on technological transformation that I want to talk about is the commitment to localism. At the moment, the issue is not localism, but a shift from an over-reliance on a centralised grid to more decentralised power and microgeneration in the future. That means that we will be looking at other mechanisms, such as a feed-in tariff, to complement the renewable obligation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will respond to the debate, so I would like to take this opportunity to ask him about his views on smart metering. I do not see how feed-in tariffs will become a meaningful part of the whole until we have smart meters in every home and every business premises. I wonder about his Department’s commitment to a display meter, rather than a smart meter, in every home and whether that is a step along the way to smart metering or a distraction or diversion that might stop us doing the right thing more quickly. Will he comment on that when he responds to the debate?

The importance of long-termism in setting out the path to tackling climate change is to provide investors with the security of being able to invest over the long term and to make a difference, and that brings me to discussing behavioural change in the 45 seconds that I have left. Local government is important but it has been neglected in the debate. The phrase “Think global, act local” is still tremendously relevant today. Local government has an important role to play in helping people to make changes to personal behaviour in as easy a way as they can. That involves giving them choices to make about the premises in which they live and work, how they travel and what they shop for and providing the right sticks and carrots for people to make the right decisions. For goodness’ sake, let us all
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celebrate successes, such as green awards and similar, and let all politicians, the media, local government and individuals play their part in making sure that we do.

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