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That is the key point. The key failure has been that the rate of change has been too fast. The Minister mentioned those who might want zero immigration. I am not one of those—the Conservative party is not in that camp—but we very firmly believe that the rate of change has been too fast in the past few years.

Keith Vaz: I asked the hon. Gentleman this yesterday in a different forum, but will he tell the House what exactly is the level of the cap that the Conservative party is suggesting?

Damian Green: The Minister has been making that point repeatedly, and it took particular chutzpah for him to do so again today in the same speech that he refused to commit himself about whether he would let in any restaurant chefs—or, if so, what number. He must take that decision in the next few months after proper analysis, yet he and the right hon. Gentleman are asking me to say what our cap would be in, I assume, 2010. Of course, we will need to do the analysis before then. It would be ridiculous to give a figure now.

The number will be substantially lower than the net figure of about 200,000, which has subsisted for the past five years. Since the Minister will not give us a figure for a small sector of the economy, about which he must decide in the next two months, he in particular has no right to ask questions about a number that will be two years out of date. That is the equivalent of asking people to give Budget figures two years beforehand.

Mr. Clappison rose—

Damian Green: If my hon. Friend will contain himself for a moment, let me say that the Government are, of course, keen to do that because they cannot answer the question—perhaps they will not answer it—about whether or not the points-based system is designed to reduce immigration to this country. The system is up and running now. Is it intended to reduce immigration or not? Was that the point that my hon. Friend was going to make?

Mr. Clappison: Rather than getting so excited about whether there is a cap, would not it be better for the Minister and his colleagues who are reflecting his views from the Back Benches to consider the fact that, if
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there is no change in the Government’s policy, between now and 2031 we will have an extra 10 million people crammed into England, with the consequences that that will have for housing, the environment, infrastructure and so on?

Damian Green: That is why I am happy to say that we cannot carry on with the rate of change and that we will therefore set the cap so that that rate of change will be substantially less than now.

Chris Huhne: The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) has usefully highlighted the contribution that net immigration clearly makes to overall population growth. Since the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) has now responded by saying that we must consider that, what does the Conservative party believe the optimal population of this country should be?

Damian Green: That is the same question again.

Keith Vaz: What is the answer?

Damian Green: I do not want to weary the House by saying this, but we will give the answer at the appropriate time, when we have to take the decision. The right hon. Gentleman, who is the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, knows perfectly well that it is at least possible and, in fact, quite likely that circumstances may change between now and 2010. Can he tell me how many of those who have come from the A8 countries over the past three or four years will go home between now and 2010, when a Conservative Government will be elected to take the decision? I do not suppose that he can; I know that I cannot at this stage, but we will be able to do so by 2010.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman’s case is built on an overall cap that is not broken down in any way. It is somewhat disingenuous to compare his position with that of my hon. Friend the Minister, because my hon. Friend is looking in detail at the economic needs of the country on a case-by-case basis. That is rather different from simply saying, “We want a certain number of immigrants overall in one particular year; it doesn’t matter what jobs they do or where they come from.”

Damian Green: The level of analysis that we provide will be the same as—or, I hope, better than—that which the Minister is providing. I should point out to those who do not follow the Minister’s announcements with quite the care that I do that he claimed that the cap would affect only 30 per cent. of those coming here. The last time he put out a press release on the subject, the figure was 20 per cent., so I find his figures particularly flexible on this issue. Indeed, I note that he reached the 30 per cent. figure by guessing the number of dependants who will accompany those who come here to work.

Barry Gardiner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Damian Green: No, I have given way enough, and others will want to contribute.

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The Minister has been more candid about the challenges than his predecessors were. In March, he gave an interview to The Daily Telegraph, saying:

I thought that that was a significant Freudian slip; his job is not necessarily to get the message or to do anything about it, but to say that the Government have got the message. That is the essence of the current Administration’s approach to all politics.

As we all know, there is a serious undertone to the issue of the success or failure of immigration policy. That seriousness was amply illustrated earlier this week in a poll that the BBC commissioned, which showed that 33 per cent. of the population strongly agree, and 26 per cent. tend to agree, with the statement that there are too many immigrants in Britain. I am sure that the Minister and everyone else in the House thinks that it is deeply worrying if the British people think like that. We have to ask whether the points-based system will make enough of an impact to turn those feelings around. It seems unarguably to be the case that the answer to that is no. We have discussed the cap, which is one of the things that we need to introduce, but within that we need to ensure that people who come to this country are economically beneficial. In that respect, we agree with the principles behind the points-based system, whatever the stresses and strains in it.

As I have said, the problem is whether the system is designed to reduce the overall numbers; the Minister has not answered that. I was glad that despite the chutzpah that he displayed in his speech, he did not repeat a point that he often makes, namely that the points-based system is like the Australian system. Of course it is not like the Australian system; that system starts with a limit, which Labour Members do not want, and then selects people within that total. That is a point for the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) to note. Everyone accepts that the Australians appear to be doing well and running a dynamic economy with an immigration system on which a British Conservative Government would closely base their own. Indeed, the Australian system is so successful that the Government like to claim that the points-based system is like the Australian system, but it simply is not.

One of the reasons why the points-based system is not enough was brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who mentioned people who are not in education, employment or training. The Minister rightly pointed out the existence of the lump of labour fallacy; like him, I have been a consultant, and I have done enough economics to know that that is a fair point. Of course, if somebody comes to this country to do a job, it does not necessarily mean that someone else loses their job. However, the Minister is in a slightly confused position if, while saying that the lump of labour fallacy means that we should not worry about unskilled migrants coming here, he is specifically stopping any unskilled migration from the rest of the world outside the EU. By doing that, he is implicitly accepting that there must be some short and medium-term effect on the British labour market, and in
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particular on the unskilled and probably least well educated members of our labour force. That is clearly something that we need to address. He is right that the issue of training and skilling is important, but it is not enough to say that there is no impact as a result of immigration, and he must address that confusion.

Let me move on to two areas in which there are serious problems with the points-based system. The right hon. Member for Leicester, East, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, told me that on Sunday he addressed 15,000 restaurateurs and restaurant workers about the problems experienced by the restaurant industry, so I shall pass over them, as I am sure that the Minister has been made well aware of them by many Labour Members, and is about to be made even more aware of them if the right hon. Gentleman catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is worth dwelling on the transition—here, too, the Minister has had problems—from the highly skilled migrant programme. The Government have changed the rules retrospectively and, as some of us have for a long time warned would happen, the Minister has ended up in court, and recently lost a High Court case. The judge judged the changes “unfair”, and said that there was

I have written to the Minister about that problem, as it was absurd to close the holes in the system by applying that level of effective retrospection to highly skilled migrants—precisely the sort of migrants, everyone in the House agrees, whom we want in the UK, and a very peculiar group to pick on when applying draconian policies.

For Members who have read every last bit of evidence from the House of Lords report, may I recommend the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights of evidence given by the Minister? The exchange between the Earl of Onslow and the Minister about whether the changes entail breaking a contract is not only illuminating but entertaining. I have to tell the Minister with all good will that the Earl of Onslow got the better of him but, to be serious, we have broken a contract with people whom we brought into this country. We have changed the rules half way through their time in the UK by introducing the points-based system, so the Minister should take the opportunity to ponder on the problems that he has caused.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I was totally baffled by the Government’s stance. As my hon. Friend has said, those people were clearly great assets to this country, so can he throw any light on the reason why the Government were prepared to do that? Was it simply an attempt to gesture that they were trying to do something to get immigration under control, even though their fire was directed at exactly the wrong target?

Damian Green: Yes, I rather agree with that, and I see it in other groups, too—not just highly skilled migrants but interns who come here to do university courses. The Minister will be aware that various parts of the immigration world are in ferment, because the rules have been changed in ways that make things that have
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happened for years illegal or impractical. The root of the problem is the Minister’s recognition that the immigration system has been out of control for a long time, causing terrible problems for this country and, more particularly, for the Government. He is trying to be tough absolutely everywhere, but there are times when he should exercise his judgment more, and say, “In this area, we should not try to cut the numbers as much as possible. Perhaps we can take a more sensible approach.”

On that issue, I should like to draw the Minister’s attention to the position of working holidaymakers. Given the nature of my postbag, I am sure that his postbag is full of letters from people who have come to the UK, often doing responsible and highly skilled jobs as working holidaymakers. They have all been told that if they wish to reapply for their jobs they have to go back home, often to countries such as New Zealand.

I have a set of e-mails from a New Zealander who is working in Scotland, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) will be pleased to hear, who has been told not only that he has to return to New Zealand to apply for a job that he has done for many months but that the Home Office cannot provide him with any indication of how long it will take for him to receive clearance to get his job back. By any standards, that is nonsense. By definition, working holidaymakers are coming to Britain to work—to do something productive—and the Government are sending them all home and saying to them, “We can’t tell you whether or when you can come back to carry on doing the job that you have been doing for some time.” [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) is chuntering, but I can assure her that there are many more cases than the one that I mentioned.

Kerry McCarthy: I am slightly confused. My understanding of working holidaymakers is that they are in the UK to have a holiday and have a good time, and they happen to be doing jobs to fund that. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that they should be given precedence in access to this country over others who might add some benefit to the economy and ease skills shortages?

Damian Green: I am not saying that such people should be given precedence, but those who are in the country and working, who are in the middle of a programme and have lots of time left on the programme, are being told, “We want you to carry on doing your job, but to do so you have to travel back half way across the world and apply for it again, and we are not going to tell you whether you can come back or not.” That seems to be administrative nonsense.

Dr. Starkey rose—

Damian Green: I have taken up enough time. I am sure that the hon. Lady will have a chance to make other points later in the debate.

In some ways, the points-based system is a step forward, but there are individual issues and it is nothing like enough to meet the scale of the problems. It will not be a particularly radical change. There will be many individual problems, but more to the point,
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the correct feeling in the country that there is a lack of control will continue. That is why we need an annual limit and a genuinely radical change in our immigration system.

Over the past 40 or 50 years we have seen that immigration is a big political issue only when it is felt to be out of control. It is not one of the issues, such as the economy or the health service, that is for ever at the top of people’s political anxieties, but it is at present, because it has been out of control for so long. It is possible to run an immigration system that is firm and fair, which allows into Britain those who will benefit our economy, without allowing our public services to be put under intolerable pressure by unplanned numbers of new arrivals, and which lets in the right people and the right number of people. That is what a Conservative immigration policy will look like.

In the meantime the British people will have to put up with the current failing Labour policies. The points-based system is a mild improvement on what came before and can be used as a base for the more sensible policies that we would introduce. However, it is not a radical improvement. Indeed, for some groups it is already making life worse. Most importantly of all, it will not transform the public’s correct impression that immigration policy has been and remains one of the great failures of the Government.

3.57 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). He spoke for 40 minutes but did not tell us precisely what the policy of the Conservative party would be in respect of immigration. On the central point of the Conservative party’s policy—the cap—he refuses to spell out in the House or outside exactly what numbers he is talking about. If the Conservative party wishes to play the numbers game, it should be specific about what those numbers would be. It is sad that he was not able to be specific.

We learned something new today: the Minister carefully studies the speeches of the hon. Member for Ashford, and the hon. Gentleman carefully studies the Minister’s speeches. Between them they have spoken for an hour and a half. Perhaps they should send each other e-mails to reduce the length of their speeches in the House. However, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on so many occasions. I do not wish to pick on him because he was so generous, as was the hon. Gentleman. This is a short debate, so I shall not give way as much as they did if anyone seeks to intervene on me.

The Minister began, rightly, in a measured way by talking about the benefits of migration. Although the hon. Member for Ashford has a particular attachment to the House of Lords report, everyone in the House recognises that the United Kingdom is a great country because of the arrival of so many immigrants throughout its history, including the Asian community over the past 30 to 40 years and the Irish community over a longer period than that. As we heard from the Work Foundation report, which was published today, the arrival of high levels of immigration has benefited us and the economy, and that has been good for the country as a whole.

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I shall deal with the continuing problem that we seem to have in the immigration debate and that has now gripped the tabloid media. I am thinking of the arrival of the central and eastern Europeans in the United Kingdom. That happened under our treaty obligations, into which we entered in good faith. We originally signed up to those obligations when we accepted the principle of freedom of movement, which happened when the right hon. Member for St. Albans was in the Cabinet. The Maastricht treaty and subsequent treaties all enabled this country to honour those commitments.

Mr. Lilley: I should say that I am the right hon. Member not for St. Albans, but for Hitchin and Harpenden. When we signed the accession treaty relating to the eight accession countries of eastern Europe, we were not required to grant unlimited and immediate access rights; we had the right to restrain those for eight years. The Government chose not to operate that right. The right hon. Gentleman is slightly—unintentionally, of course—misleading the House in suggesting that the commitment was made under the Maastricht treaty. It was not.

Keith Vaz: I was not misleading the House in any way, even inadvertently. The process began when we joined the European Union. The basis of our membership of the EU was the freedom of movement, although of course there can be transitional arrangements. Last year, the Select Committee considered the issue in respect of Romania and Bulgaria and the Government took a different view, feeling that the restrictions should remain. That has not stopped people from those countries coming to this country on work permits or as self-employed people and contributing to our economy.

Let us put an end to the nonsense about central and eastern European migration to the United Kingdom. It has benefited our country, whether in a town such as Boston, or in Leicester, Ealing or Brent. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) is here and could tell us what a contribution those communities have made.

The hon. Member for Ashford was right: I will concentrate on the shortage of skilled chefs from south Asia. That is not because that is the only issue as far as the points-based system is concerned, but because it is current and relevant. The migration advisory committee will meet in the near future to consider the list that the Minister talked about. It is important that we should express to the Minister our constituents’ concerns and those of the catering industry as a whole about the real problems in that industry.

As the hon. Member for Ashford said, in the past week I was in Trafalgar square, where 15,000 members of the south Asian community—not only the Bangladeshi community, but people of Indian, Pakistani, Turkish and Chinese origin—took part in one of the largest demonstrations, if not the largest, of the south Asian community that I have seen in my 21 years in this House. About 8,000 people signed a petition, which was handed in at 10 Downing street. Meetings to discuss the issue have been held all over the country.

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