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15 Nov 2007 : Column 842

That is one of the most serious messages that could have gone out. The Home Secretary told us on Tuesday that the Metropolitan police had said that there was no compromising of security in the various buildings affecting it, or, indeed, in the compound with the Prime Minister’s car in it. That is clearly contradicted by what the SIA was telling people. Even worse, the Home Secretary has still refused to publish a list of the sites where security might have been compromised. More to the point, what has been done to correct this?

The Home Secretary asked us on Tuesday to judge her on her actions, rather than her words, but that is impossible if she will not tell us what the effect of her actions has been. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who is winding up the debate, can address some of the questions that the Home Secretary declined to answer on Tuesday. The Home Office has now had 48 hours to get its story straight, so perhaps it can address those questions. How many more illegal workers were guarding Government buildings or other critical national infrastructure? Can the Minister guarantee that no illegal worker is still guarding any Government, police or military building or any other part of our critical national infrastructure? How many of the 5,000 illegal workers identified have been caught, and how many have been removed from this country? Until Home Office Ministers answer those questions in this House, the public will know that they can have no confidence that Ministers have solved this problem. The fact that they have spent the past four months trying to hide its extent suggests that they are more concerned about saving their own skins than protecting this country’s security.

The background to all this is the long-term failure of this Government’s immigration policy. The Minister for Borders and Immigration is a good man in a bad Government. His predecessor summed up the ineptitude of the Government’s policy when he stood at that Dispatch Box and accused me of playing the numbers game with immigration. This Minister is at least bright enough to recognise that immigration is a numbers game. Numbers matter in immigration, and they have been out of control under this Government. The key fact that they have missed over their 10 years in power is that even if immigration is economically beneficial, which broadly speaking it is, if it runs at too fast a rate it can cause stresses and strains. In recent weeks, I have seen examples of that in places as far removed from each other as inner-city Bristol and Boston in rural Lincolnshire. We have heard the same stories of schools finding it difficult to cope with children who arrive unable to speak English and of communities—many of them established ethnic minority communities in this country—that are made uneasy by the pace of change around them.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab) rose—

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Damian Green: I shall give way to the hon. Lady, who has a very distinguished record in this field.

Mrs. Cryer: The hon. Gentleman is talking about keeping down numbers. In the exchanges during the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration, mention was made of the primary-purpose rule. Does the hon. Gentleman intend to reintroduce it if and when the Conservatives are eventually re-elected?

Damian Green: The straight answer to a straight question is that we do not. We have suggestions for improving the position, particularly on forced marriages—an issue that I know deeply concerns the hon. Lady—and I shall come on to those in a minute, because I want to spend some time discussing our policy, although, unlike the Minister, I do not want to spend all my time doing so.

Mr. Bone: Wellingborough has an extremely complex mixture of races and religions. It works exceptionally well, but tension is beginning to arise because of the numbers coming in from the European Union. I am concerned that the extreme parties will move in to exploit the situation unless politicians from the main parties start talking about the matter. Is not this debate a good example of how we should proceed?

Damian Green: I agree. One of the things that I suspect would unite the Minister and me is the idea that if mainstream politicians do not talk about immigration, we leave the field clear for extremist politicians. We must not do that. I am delighted that this House is having this debate now, because many of the underlying tensions that extremist parties seek to whip up are about the rate of change being too high. It is too high and it is accelerating. The Government have recently had to increase their long-term projection of net annual immigration from 145,000 a year to 190,000 a year. Today, we received figures confirming that. More than two thirds of the total increase in our population is due to immigration. Net immigration means that we need to build more than 70,000 new houses every year in addition to those that we need for other reasons, such as longer life expectancy and an increasing number of family breakdowns.

Immigration is about more than economics, although we must be clear about the economic effects. As I said a few minutes ago, they are generally positive, but the impact is different for different groups of people.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Damian Green: In a second.

One of the most dishonest and irresponsible phrases mentioned in this debate has been used repeatedly by the Prime Minister:

The Minister cited Enoch Powell. I simply point out that the most Powellite use of language that we have recently heard on this subject came from the Prime Minister. I hope that the Minister and many of his colleagues who are present are ashamed to belong to a party whose leader uses phases such as that one, not least because the Prime Minister knows that it is
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meaningless. If a firm in this country advertised, “British jobs for British workers”, it would be prosecuted. It is a promise that he cannot possibly fulfil.

The Government are being simplistic on this subject because of their policy’s failure over such a long period of time. They have had to resort to ever-tougher rhetoric. I am afraid that the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the chaos in the immigration system that people see in their daily lives leads to precisely the sort of position in which extremist politicians and politics can flourish. The Government should be ashamed of their performance on immigration over 10 years.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the demands that immigration is making on this country’s resources, such as housing and schools. The pressure is now being felt in Northern Ireland. Yesterday, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs visited Belmarsh prison, where officers are doing a magnificent job in extreme circumstances. As 25 per cent. of the prison’s population are not even able to speak English, because they are foreign nationals, immense pressure has been put on its resources, as has probably been the case in prisons across the United Kingdom. That is another factor that needs to be considered.

Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. The Government’s policy has failed. In the face of that failure, the Conservatives have made proposals designed to produce a balanced immigration policy, seeking to capture the economic benefits while minimising the strains.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): What are they?

Damian Green: The Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs should listen to his own Minister, who spent his entire speech talking about our policy. We believe in a cap on economic migration from outside the EU. We should have transitional controls on migration from any new EU entrants. Such controls are allowed by the EU treaties and we are using them to regulate the flow of new migrants from Romania and Bulgaria. It was a mistake for the Government not to follow France and Germany‘s example of using this transitional measure when the eight central European countries entered the EU in 2004. Anyone who comes to the UK from outside the EU to be married should be at least 21 and should have some command of English. To enforce controls against illegal immigration, we should set up a proper unified border force combining the police, the immigration service and Customs so that we have an effective, specialist force. This is a balanced set of proposals, with no hint of alarmist language and no sense of pulling up a drawbridge. They would restore public confidence and improve community cohesion.

Let us contrast that with the current position. The Prime Minister promised us a new style of government. He said that his Government would be frank, candid and competent. Instead, we have a Home Secretary who this week has been exposed as shifty, evasive and incompetent. The immigration system is failing, the Home Office is still not fit for purpose and the Government’s reputation is deservedly in tatters.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The House will understand that we are on an experimental journey with the first of these topical debates. The powers of the Chair to alter the time limits come in very handy at this moment, so I propose that instead of the 12-minute limit on Back Benchers’ speeches, we will have a 10-minute limit. Hopefully, that will accommodate all those who are seeking to participate. I refer to those from whom I have had notice that they are seeking to participate, because there is a distinction.

12.48 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to be taking part in your experiment this afternoon.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). I think that he spent nine minutes on Government policy and about 30 seconds on setting out Conservative party policy. It did not include the identity of the island that will be the offshore centre for the processing of immigration cases under a Conservative Government. Perhaps we should wait for the winding-up speeches for that.

We all lavish the Minister with praise and think that he is a wonderful man. I believe that he was described as a good Minister in a bad Government. I think that he is a nice man in a tough job. He is not all that nice, though: I have found him to be pretty tough in dealing with immigration cases, and certainly with the ones I have brought to him for consideration. I sometimes think that he considers the word “discretion” to be some kind of perfume by Chanel rather than a ministerial power. He certainly has not exercised it very often when I have come to him with cases that I believe to be important, but I suppose that that is the nature of his job.

The Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Ashford, was right to point out the problems that the Government have had, and everyone acknowledges that there are problems with certain aspects of immigration policy. This week, the Home Secretary gave us a full explanation about the Security Industry Authority, in which she set out the steps that she and Ministers have quite properly taken to ensure that the problem will be resolved by Christmas. The hon. Gentleman said that some questions remain unanswered, but that is wrong. The relevant questions have been answered, and any that remain must be answered only after all the facts have been considered in full.

I am pleased that the Minister is to give evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on 27 November. As well as considering Romania and Bulgaria, we shall pursue with him the question of how the Government have handled the SIA’s employment of illegal immigrants. We shall also consider the problem with the figures—to be fair, they were produced by the Department for Work and Pensions and not the Home Office—that recounted that about 300,000 people were not on the official register of those who had come to this country to work.

We will also consider the most recent developments on eastern European migration to this country. The Conservative party participated in the all-party support for the enlargement process over a number of
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years, and it also claims to have supported the Nice treaty. How sad, therefore, that it should be so critical of the large number of eastern Europeans who have quite rightly taken advantage of treaty obligations to come to this country.

I ask the hon. Member for Ashford to have a word with the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) about the wonderful relationship that he has developed with his eastern European community in west London. A recent Home Office report showed that the contribution of migration, especially from the A8 countries, had boosted the British economy. That is why I am glad that we took the decisions that we did in 2004, as those people are most welcome in this country. I am disappointed, of course, about Romania and Bulgaria, but on 27 November we will hear from the Minister why he came to those conclusions. We will also hear from the Romanian Minister for Europe about that country’s views on the subject.

The figures are serious and need to be examined, but we must consider immigration in a balanced and non-hysterical way. I am sorry that, every time the matter comes up, the Opposition try to hype it up as though vast numbers of people were coming into the country. As the hon. Member for Ashford knows, Government immigration rules still make it very difficult for people to come into the UK.

I commend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), on her proper and balanced performance on a recent “Newsnight” programme on immigration. She set out the facts and the Government’s attempts to tackle illegal immigration very clearly.

If we both get the train, I shall meet the Minister for Borders and Immigration this afternoon—not in Jerusalem, but in Birmingham, where staff from the British high commission in India are going to talk about illegal immigration into the UK. They will seek the support of the stakeholders involved—community groups and leaders, and families—and their message will be that there is a better alternative to paying vast amounts of money to people traffickers in Amritsar. The people who do that are made to travel all the way through Asia and Europe before they enter this country, where they live in the shadows, unable to be proper members of society. I hope that that message is taken on board.

The Minister is right that there have been improvements over the past year. The Select Committee will examine those improvements in due course but, as my hon. Friend knows, I feel strongly that the Home Office is not doing enough to get the backlog down. It is wrong that it takes three weeks to get a reply from the director-general of the immigration service. It is now called the Border and Immigration Agency, but merely changing to a new name does not improve the efficiency of the service on offer to Members of Parliament.

In addition, it still takes too long to get a reply from my hon. Friend the Minister, who took four months to reply to a letter from me. That is wrong: he is right to be tough, but the process can be improved only if Members of Parliament are provided with information that they can readily give to their constituents so that they are satisfied. If people who wish to stay in the
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country are told that they cannot do so, that response should be given quickly, at the very least. In that way, the people involved will be able to make the decisions that will genuinely affect their lives.

I turn now to the issue of foreign prisoners in our prisons, something that I have written to the Minister about. In one case, the prisoner involved left the country within a couple of hours of being released from prison, but we need to improve the system, so that prisoners who finish their sentences are on the plane back to their country of origin as quickly as possible. I do not want the House to believe that I spend all my time visiting prisons, but one governor, whose prison has a lot of foreign prisoners, gave me anecdotal evidence that paperwork from Lunar house and Apollo house was needed before people at the end of their sentence could be allowed to leave the country.

That shows that there is a problem when it comes to administrative efficiency. I am sure that the Minister goes into his office on a Monday morning and tears his hair out—I mean that imaginatively!—when he sees the list of questions and letters from Southall, West Ham and other places all over the country. In their surgeries, MPs are always asked, “Why is it taking so long?” and “When will they give us the time limit?” I am sure that my hon. Friend hears the same questions in his surgeries, but we are talking about being fit for purpose, and ensuring that the people who respond to such correspondence get the answers right.

Finally, I know that the Minister puts a great deal of faith in the points-based system, which he inherited rather than created. Although I do not share his optimism about the success of the scheme, I shall give him a degree of latitude and take it on faith when he says that it will work, but it will affect people who come here from outside the EU. As he knows from the recent work done by the EU presidency, the EU has a falling population. We need to look abroad, beyond the boundaries of Europe, if we are to sustain ourselves as the finest and largest single economic market in the world. That was the aim of the Lisbon agenda, but we cannot do that unless we have the people. Even enlargement, with Turkey coming in, will not solve that problem.

The points-based system discriminates against those who want to come from outside the EU. It means that we will still have problems with shortages of skills in restaurants, for example, and with getting chefs into this country. Those are the sort of specialist problems that I hope that the Minister will address. I know that he has his migration impact forum and a lot of advisers, and that he deals with the subject properly and seriously because of his constituency interest. All I ask him to do is to consider the evidence. If the system needs a bit of tweaking by the start of next year, I hope that he will look favourably on our suggestions and see whether we can improve it even further.

12.58 pm

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