Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): It is a great privilege to take part in this first topical debate. The rules, as I understand them, are that everybody can speak for 10 minutes—unless they belong to the Liberal Democrat party, in which case they get six minutes.
15 Nov 2007 : Column 848
Labour and Conservative Members agree on the issue of immigration, as on many others, so it falls to me to make the liberal and enlightened contribution. Six minutes is long enough to do that.

This week has been particularly embarrassing for the Home Office, given the scandal about the SIA. The Government still need to make it clear why the Home Secretary did not take the opportunity on 8 October, when the House of Commons returned after the summer recess, to make the statement that she made earlier this week, but there is a wider point about the culture of the Home Office. It has legions of press officers who are paid for out of our taxes—people who could otherwise be employed as teachers or nurses, or in other parts of the public sector. However, they are being used and deployed not to reveal information to the public, but to conceal it. That is an extremely bad way for a Government Department to proceed.

European Union immigration has had a big impact on constituencies across the country. I depart from the Conservative party view on this. People often forget that there are huge mutual advantages to the arrangements. Many of our constituents choose to retire, say, to Spain, or their children choose to spend a gap year working in Paris. We should not forget that there are benefits to our constituents of arrangements with other EU countries, as well as benefits to us of having people from the new accession nations working in our communities.

In the constituency that I represent there are huge labour shortages, especially in unpopular areas of work such as in slaughterhouses and agriculture. It can be difficult to recruit people from the immediate community to work in those areas. However, people do not come to work only in relatively low-skilled jobs. People such as dentists have come from eastern Europe and are making a huge contribution to our society. If the Conservative party wants to keep all or a large number of the people from eastern European countries out of the UK, how much more does it estimate it will cost to have services such as plumbing provided? There has clearly been an increased supply of skilled labour from eastern Europe and if it were removed, that would have a detrimental impact on our constituents.

Many people in the community that I represent are extremely positive about the contribution that has been made by people from new accession countries. They think that they work hard and have made a genuine effort to integrate. I make a prediction here and now that if living standards increase significantly in eastern Europe—I hope that they do—there will come a point perhaps 10 years from now when people in constituencies such as mine will resent all the Polish people going back to Poland because they will leave us in the lurch in many parts of our local economy. The whole story will have been turned on its head.

I want to talk a little about the wider shame of what I heard the Conservative spokesman say. When I was growing up, the big issue of foreign policy was the cold war and how it could be brought to a conclusion. The British Government at the time—a Conservative Government—made a point of saying to countries such as Poland and Hungary, “We are on your side; we stand with you against the Soviet tyranny.” But as soon as the Conservatives have an opportunity to demonstrate that in any meaningful terms, they
15 Nov 2007 : Column 849
abandon those people altogether. Someone of my age was brought up with the assumption that the most access that we would ever have to Polish people would be fighting them in the third world war. How fantastic it is that instead Polish people are coming here within an enlarged European Union, sharing our values of democracy, belief in liberal free markets and freedom of speech and are living in our communities, making a contribution and filling labour shortages. What an enlightened change that is; what an amazing success of British foreign policy, and how sad it is that the Conservative party is so small in its outlook and unable to recognise and acknowledge that change. It is still seeking to put barriers in the way of those people and restrict their opportunities.

Damian Green: I assume that the hon. Gentleman also condemns the Governments of the vast majority of other countries in the EU which all welcomed, as we do, the accession countries into the EU but put on precisely the transitional controls that we neglected to put on? The French, Germans, Italians and Spanish all put on transitional controls. They welcome the Poles and other workers, but they want a controlled system. That is a more sensible way of enlarging the EU.

Mr. Browne: I disagree with that.

Damian Green: So they were all wrong.

Mr. Browne: The usual assumption of the Conservative party is that the other countries in the European Union are all wrong. I give credit to the Government. The British Government were enlightened and intelligent in terms of self-interest but also of generosity of spirit to the 10 new accession countries in allowing those people to come and work here. The situation in Germany was slightly different because it shares a long land border with Poland so the effect might have been even more pronounced. We have benefited hugely and we have demonstrated to those countries, their Governments and their people that Britain is a trusted ally within the EU. Immigration is helpful to us in our foreign policy and our domestic economy. It is no coincidence that we are in a better position to grow and expand our economy than many of the more sclerotic economies that the hon. Gentleman holds up as an example.

There are problems with large numbers of people coming into the country. There is pressure on housing and other services—schools were mentioned. If large numbers who do not speak English as a first language come into the education system, that is problematic. However, overall we have a reasonably dynamic economy in Britain. It has shown continuous growth for the past 15 years, and successful economies attract labour. People want to come here, work here, provide for themselves and their families and create new opportunities for themselves. That creates a better, more open, more dynamic economy and society for us in this country. We should celebrate the contribution that has been made by people from outside the United Kingdom while recognising the pressures on some public services. We must have an enlightened and liberal approach to immigration in this country.

15 Nov 2007 : Column 850
1.5 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I listened to the speech by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). Apparently we now have a balanced immigration policy from the Conservative party. The policy starts from the assumption that there are too many people coming here and that we have to control the numbers, without giving any idea how, or what sort of cap would work. It makes only nodding reference to the economic benefits of migration. That does not strike me as a balanced policy. Conservative Members try to give the impression that if there were a Tory Government everything would be fine and we would be in control of what was happening.

I recognise that after 10 years in Government, we have to be responsible for what has happened in those 10 years, but those of us who have been here for rather longer than 10 years remember what it was like dealing with immigration and asylum cases under a Tory Government. We remember the chaos in the Home Office and the huge and growing backlogs during the 1990s. We remember the unofficial amnesties that happened without anyone outside the Home Office ever being told. The failure to remove people was endemic. The Tory Government stopped recording people who left the country in the 1990s. Then the all-singing, all-dancing computer system was commissioned. Home Office staff were let go on the back of that, and of course it never worked. So please do not tell me that the Tory party would run an immigration system that worked. We can look back to the record of the early 1990s and remember what happened then. Those of us who were here then remember that very well.

I want to say something about numbers, because they are an issue. Sometimes in debates about the numbers, people try to give the impression that we have no idea how many people are coming in, but we have a great deal of data and they are accurate. We know how many people apply for visas to come here as spouses; we know how many people apply for all sorts of visas to come into the country. We know how many people come here on the highly skilled migrant programme. The holes in the data are clearly on movements from within the EU. For people coming from one of the A8 countries who wish to seek employment, there is a registration scheme, but there is nothing to stop someone from coming here and becoming self-employed, and a lot of people do.

We have got problems. There is a genuine problem, and it does not help to address it if all that people do is shout that there are too many, in getting to grips with the numbers. We have census data, which we know are out of date. We have national insurance numbers. We have labour force surveys and the international passenger survey sampling. We also have data from registration with GPs and we can get data from schools. There are real difficulties in getting accurate data not so much at the national level but at the local level. The e-borders programme will get us to the point where we have much more accurate data at national level, but no one has come up with any real suggestions about obtaining accurate local data. It would help if we could have some genuine discussions about how we might get a better grip on the data at local level. It is local communities who see the impact and the data affect the distribution of resources to local authorities.
15 Nov 2007 : Column 851
The issue is difficult and complicated. There is no simple answer to it, and it is certainly not an answer just to shout slogans about the Home Office not having detailed and accurate figures.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend must be aware that there are many people, particularly in London but also in other cities, who lead a twilight existence—a dangerous and vulnerable existence. We should reach out to them and recognise first, the contribution that they make and secondly, that if there is a transition from migrants into citizens, everybody in our society will benefit and some of the counting problems to which he has rightly referred will be removed.

Mr. Gerrard: That is an important point, to which I shall return in more detail.

There is an issue that we need to think about. There is not one simple answer, and just shouting slogans does not help to address the problem at all. It is not even just people who are new immigrants into the country who are affected. Any hon. Member representing a London constituency will know about the mobility that exists. One has only to look at an electoral register and see a year-on-year change of perhaps 20 per cent. to appreciate that mobility and realise the difficulties that it creates in providing local services. We need to talk about the numbers, but we need to do so sensibly and not just talk about simplistic stuff such as imposing a cap, because that is not an answer to anything.

On controls, it is only in the past six or seven years that we have had a sensible debate about what immigration policy ought to be. From about 1971 to 2001, we had lots of debates about mechanisms and controls, but we did not talk about what the policy would be. It was only when the then Minister with responsibility for immigration, Barbara Roche, initiated a debate around 2000 that we started to make the linkages between labour market needs, the economy and what sort of migration we need. The Government’s current approach, in moving away from the plethora of different routes into the country and introducing a points-based system, is sensible.

I have some issues about the points-based system and how exactly it will work. The first is that it seems that we are to have a points-based system that will shut out unskilled labour from outside the EU. That will be a problem. The second problem is that those who can enter through the lower tiers that relate to unskilled work will have little in the way of rights, such as those relating to family reunion and the ability to reach the point at which they can apply to stay in the UK permanently. Those issues could cause us difficulties in the future.

There are issues about the transition on the highly skilled migrants programme, too, as the Minister knows. That links to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) raised about those who are already here, but who are often undocumented and working illegally. They will have come through all sorts of routes. Sometimes people have an image of an illegal worker as someone who arrived in the back of a lorry and then stayed to work, but we are talking about people who have come through all sorts of different routes.

15 Nov 2007 : Column 852

Some of those people are failed asylum seekers who were given permission to work years ago and technically lost it when their asylum claim was refused, yet nothing has ever been done about it. Others include people who came here as visitors or students and overstayed, or people who came here years ago from countries such as Jamaica when visas were not required. A large number of those people work, have a national insurance number and in many cases, but not all—there are of course people working in the moonlight economy—pay tax. They have families and children, but they do not have a settled immigration status. If we are to start cracking down more on employers who employ people illegally, as is intended, more people in that situation will turn up. They have no security and no method of enforcing rights at work, because if they attempt to do so, an employer who knows that they do not have legal permission to work will not be easily swayed.

My hon. Friend mentioned the “strangers into citizens” campaign. We must seriously think about how we deal with those people. The reality is that we are not going to remove them all. In many cases they are people who have been here a long time. I would argue, as I know a number of my hon. Friends would, that we need seriously to consider a regularisation scheme—that is, a mechanism to allow people to earn the right to stay here. If we are to introduce a transparent points-based system that is seen to work fairly, we shall sooner or later have to deal with the problem, because otherwise it will always be there in the background.

We have done things like that before. When the Tories were in government they ran amnesties that were not publicised. We, too, have run concessions and amnesties of one sort or another. Other countries have run regularisation schemes. That is something that we must start to address. A regularisation scheme would allow people who are effectively settled here to enjoy the benefits from the tax and national insurance that in many cases they have paid. Regularisation would also make it easier both to go for the rogue employer and to give protection and rights to the whole work force, because if people with this doubtful status are working in an industry, everybody is affected. That is something that we should address, as we introduce the new points system.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am reluctant to reduce the time limit further at this stage, as I realise that that can have a disproportionate effect, but we are going to run out of time. May I therefore appeal to those whom I call to try to compress their remarks?

1.17 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I shall pick up one or two of the remarks that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) made, at the end of my speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) is right to point to the shocking revelations earlier this week and to the wider problem of the breakdown of border controls, which is what most concerns us all. When the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), of whom I am extremely fond, teased my hon. Friend about the fantasy island yet again, one had the feeling that he might have been planning a Select Committee visit.

15 Nov 2007 : Column 853

Keith Vaz: If the hon. Gentleman gives me the destination, we shall consider it.

Mr. Brazier: Immigration has brought many benefits to this country over the years, from almost all of our major supermarkets, founded by descendants of turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants, to the Indian software analysts who play such a big part in our most exciting service industry. However, I want to set the issue in a demographic context. In terms of population density, Britain is the most overcrowded country in Europe, apart from the low countries. If we take England alone, which is the destination for the vast majority of population movements, we are more crowded even than them. So many of the matters that we debate and discuss in the House come back to problems of overcrowding. They include housing shortages—a desperate problem in my part of the world—congestion on the roads, overstretched public services, and water shortages in summer and floods resulting from building on flood plains in winter.

Projections by the Office for National Statistics suggest that in a single generation, to 2031, we will experience a population increase of 10 million, from 61 million to 71 million, 70 per cent. of which will be caused by net immigration. However, the ONS keeps revising its estimates upwards—I have no doubt that the figures will be even larger within a year or two—and at no point does it take account of hidden, illegal immigration. Crucially—particularly in the light of the largely irrelevant contribution from the Liberal Democrat spokesman—70 per cent. of all immigration to this country is projected to come from outside the EU. That is about the same figure as for the last year for which we have figures.

There has rightly been a great deal of discussion about numbers; this is a numbers game. The key to the numbers is to understand that, when the Government increased the number of work permits from 40,000 a year to a projected 200,000 a year—the present Prime Minister’s figure, bizarrely announced in a Budget speech—they effectively determined that the number of work permit-holders and their families would exceed the total level of net immigration.

The hon. Gentleman asked what would be done on numbers. He challenged my hon. Friend on this point. The truth is that work permits are wholly under the control of the Government, and the sheer arithmetic tells us that work permits alone cover the whole of immigration.

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I know that time is tight. If he looks at the international passenger survey statistics for 2006 in relation to Commonwealth and other foreign countries, he will see that 78,000 were students and 114,000 were dependents, with 27,000 others. That is 219,000 people who were not coming here primarily for work-related reasons.

Mr. Brazier: The Minister is a good man in a bad Government, and he knows perfectly well that we have almost unprecedentedly high levels of emigration. The point is that, on the Government’s own target, the level of work permits exceeds the current net immigration level. Net immigration is only one third of immigration.

Next Section Index Home Page