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I agree. What I have just said is that the Conservative party will not participate in that auction and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can persuade his colleagues and his Ministers not to participate in it.

Dr. Starkey: The hon. Gentleman’s motion quotes the report by my Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. I simply ask him to confirm that the Committee took no view on the level of immigration and that the parts he quoted referred to local pressures, particularly the fact that the funding that accrues to central Government from immigration was not redirected to local areas to deal with the pressure on local services?

Damian Green: What the hon. Lady’s Committee said—I have the quote here—is:

resulted in migration becoming

That is exactly right. It is precisely the pace of change that has got out of control under the hon. Lady’s Government. We have had net immigration of just below 200,000 a year and it is precisely the argument of Conservative Members that if we carry on like that, we will carry on exacerbating the strains and problems that people perceive in immigration policy.

Several hon. Members rose

Damian Green: I have given way enough for the time being.

The fact that the Government’s policy is failing is sort of admitted by the hon. Lady’s own Minister, so it need not be a matter of controversy between us. The question is what we can do to alleviate the problem.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con) rose—

Damian Green: I will give way to my hon. Friend, but that will be for the last time.

Mr. Malins: Does my hon. Friend agree that the total inefficiency of the Government and the Home Office over the past 10 years has been the major problem, as evidenced by two things? First, the accommodation centres that they were going to set up for asylum seekers cost millions and came to absolutely nothing, and, secondly, it can sometimes take years to get a decision on immigration cases—and the process is getting even slower.

Damian Green: My hon. Friend is precisely right. It has indeed been a decade of incompetence and in his honest moments, the new immigration Minister admits it— [Interruption.] All his moments are honest, but the problem is that he honestly appears to believe different
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things on Saturday from what he believes on Sunday. What we need, and what we have proposed, is a range of measures to establish firm and fair immigration controls to the benefit of people in this country and, ultimately, to the benefit of new arrivals in Britain as well.

Let me make some concrete proposals, which I suggest the Minister and the Home Secretary could adopt. A Conservative Government would set an annual limit on the number of people from outside the EU who are allowed to come here to work. Such a limit would aim at a substantially lower inflow than we have had in recent years. Economic benefit would be the key test on which individuals would be admitted and the limit would take account of wider societal effects such as housing, public service provision and community cohesion. Most years, we would expect there to be a positive level of migration into the UK, but it would be substantially lower than current levels. The limit would be set after consultation with employers, local authorities and major public service providers— [Interruption.] Ministers on the Front Bench are chuntering hard about consultation. I appreciate that they do not like listening to other people, but if they knew their own policies, they would know that they set up the migration advisory committee and the Migration Impacts Forum precisely to get the information—it is useful to have it—that would allow us to set a limit. Our policy is very similar to what happens in Australia, which has a points-based system, but also a limit.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab) rose—

Damian Green: I have given way enough.

Ministers are disingenuous in always referring to their system as being like the Australian system. It is in some small ways like that system, but it is unlike it in one key way. The Government do not propose a limit, but we do. That is one of the big differences between us.

Our second set of proposals are on marriage. Among our key proposals—some of which, I think, the Government would agree with—is that the lower age limit should be raised to 21 for both spouse and sponsor for marriages with people from abroad. If the Government have said that they will do that, I wish that they would. We also say that the spouse must have a basic knowledge of English before coming to the UK. That will be extremely important in improving community cohesion and integration in this country. Spouses should register before they go abroad to marry, particularly to avoid young women being spirited abroad for forced marriages. All potential spouses coming to the UK ought to take the “Life in the UK” citizenship test while they are here.

Our third set of proposals are on movements of people within the European Union. Clearly, one of the great failures of the past 10 years was that of the Government to predict how many people would come here when the EU expanded in 2004. Britain should put on transitional controls for any future new members, to avoid unexpectedly large numbers of arrivals at any one time. I hope that the Government will agree to that.

Our fourth set of proposals are on enforcement. No immigration system will inspire confidence if our borders remain as badly protected as they have been throughout the lifetime of this Government, despite the hard work put in by those manning the borders. We propose that a new UK border police force be created—it would be a
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specialist border force, the lead agency dealing with illegal overstayers and the specialist arm of the police in the battle against people trafficking. That would make an important contribution to making our borders safer.

In the past few days, we have heard a number of statements from the new immigration Minister, and he has contradicted himself. As a result, I am genuinely unsure whether he wants to change immigration policy in a direction that we would approve of, or whether he is simply spinning and trying to talk tough. If he is saying, as appeared to be the case in some of his interviews, that the Government’s current policies, which were announced before he took over, are enough to restore confidence in the immigration system, he is destined to be badly disappointed. The Opposition will continue to argue our reasonable, fact-based case on immigration. If hon. Members on both sides of the House do not address the concerns of millions of people about immigration, we are in danger of leaving the field clear for nasty, extremist parties, which simply want to stir up trouble between communities.

This country needs a Government who will put into practice effective immigration controls that will restore confidence in our borders. That is the best way to reduce tension between communities to allow all British citizens to share in the values of our country and the benefits of living here, and to make sure that our public services can cope with the demands on them. If the new immigration Minister moves policy significantly in that direction, he will do some good. If he cannot or will not, the tasks will fall to others. They are all absolutely crucial tasks, and they explain why the need for a firm, fair, balanced immigration policy remains one key reason why Britain needs another Conservative Government, as soon as possible.

4.3 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

Without seeking to give offence to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who made a reasonable fist of setting out the rag-bag of half-baked ideas that passes for his party’s policy on immigration, it is a mark of how seriously Opposition Members take the debate that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) could not bring himself to be at the Dispatch Box in Opposition time this afternoon. Thankfully, we have his comments from a newspaper article published
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yesterday to guide us on his thinking, even though we did not have his thoughts in the Chamber this afternoon.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con) rose—

Jacqui Smith: The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot roll up and intervene, but not be willing to make a proper speech. But I will let him.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Home Secretary. I happily eschewed the possibility of addressing the House in return for the opportunity of hearing the ideas of her hon. Friend the immigration Minister, and I am deeply disappointed that we shall not be able to hear him develop those ideas this afternoon. I think I trust my hon. Friend more than she trusts hers.

Jacqui Smith: The point is that Members will hear from both me and my hon. Friend the immigration Minister today, but they will not hear from the shadow Home Secretary—unless he chooses to pop up and down on various occasions—because, despite having chosen this subject for an Opposition day debate, he has not chosen to present the argument himself.

Several hon. Members rose

Jacqui Smith: No, I will not give way yet.

I believe that people understand that migration can bring benefits to our country, but they also rightly demand a robust system, so that we can control who comes here, and so that migrants abide by our laws and contribute to our society. That is why we are completing the biggest overhaul of the immigration system in a generation. For instance, we are taking action to strengthen our borders.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The Home Secretary says that she has a robust system in operation. Can she explain why constituents of mine whose deportation was ordered at least four or five years ago are still in the country? Does she call that a robust system?

Jacqui Smith: I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be relieved to know that last year we removed one person from the country every eight minutes, and that—this is where he is wrong—we are on track to conclude most of our asylum cases within six months by the end of the year. When the hon. Gentleman and the Government whom he supported left office in 1997, the time scale was approximately 22 months. That is the difference between an effective immigration system and the system that we inherited.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): While my right hon. Friend is on the subject of asylum, may I ask whether she is concerned about the number of people in detention, the number of children in detention, and the number of apparent asylum seekers who, having been denied either the right to work or access to benefits, are living in desperate poverty and having to beg on the streets of this country? Does she not think that we need to review the humanity of our asylum system, as well as everything else?

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Jacqui Smith: It is, of course, important—as I have just said—that we have speeded up decision making, and we are piloting other ways of ensuring that we can do everything possible to prevent children from being placed in detention.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Jacqui Smith: No. Given that the hon. Member for Ashford accepted only four interventions, I wish to make a bit of progress.

We are taking action not only to strengthen our borders, but to introduce a system to ensure that we select only those who can be of benefit to Britain, to ensure that newcomers speak English, pay their way and play by the rules, and to manage the local impact of migration. In April we launched a new UK Border Agency with the purpose, the powers and the punch to protect our borders in the 21st century. Our borders are already among the most secure in the world, and the UKBA has a clear purpose in protecting them, controlling migration for the benefit of the country and preventing border tax fraud, smuggling and immigration crime.

The combining of the Border and Immigration Agency, Customs at the border and UKvisas in a strong single force means that the numbers securing our borders are at an all-time high. There are 25,000 staff, including more than 9,000 warranted customs and immigration officers, operating in local communities, at the border and in more than 135 countries worldwide. However, we are determined to make the border even stronger, and we are doing so by reintroducing the border controls and exit checks that the Conservatives removed when they were in office. Our electronic borders system, e-Borders, will count 99 per cent. of non-EEA foreign nationals in and out of the United Kingdom by 2010, while checking them against watch-lists.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I welcome any increase in border security, but the Home Secretary does not believe that there ought to be a limit or a cap on the numbers coming into this country. If unemployment continues to rise, will she reconsider her policy on introducing a cap on immigration?

Jacqui Smith: I am coming on to how precisely we have introduced a system that will enable us to be flexible and to meet the needs of the economy and the people of this country, unlike Conservative Members.

E-Borders is already delivering results and it is keeping people whom we do not want in Britain out. These checks make up just one part of Britain's triple ring of border security alongside fingerprint checks abroad and tougher enforcement in-country.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): Many of my constituents will be concerned about immigrants coming into this country and notionally stealing British jobs. My argument is that if the Conservative party had invested in equipping people with the right skills when it was in power, we would not need the people who are coming into the country now. I am pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend has said, but will she confirm that we will still open the doors of this country to the expertise that we need to buoy up our economy while the Labour party continues to develop the skilled people whom we need to look after ourselves?

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Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point and I refer her simply to last week’s Government announcements on how we are investing extra money to ensure that people in this country have the skills to fill the jobs that exist.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Why do the Government continue to confuse the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, under which all the students go home because of the sponsorship arrangements, with the wider issues on immigration? Is she aware that because of the Government’s determination to wind the scheme down to try to appear tough on immigration, over £40 million worth of fruit and vegetables have been unpicked in this country and left to rot in the fields?

Jacqui Smith: I know that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) have raised this issue. We need to ensure that there is flexibility to aid the agriculture market in this country but, particularly by allowing those from within the EEA to take up such positions, we have made sure that there is the labour available to do that.

We need to be selective about who we let in to Britain, and that does not just start at the border. It starts and ends with an immigration policy that works in Britain's best interests with tough but fair rules in place. The introduction of the Australian-style points-based system is now fully under way, ensuring that those, and only those, with the skills the UK needs can come here to work and study.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Jacqui Smith: I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Scott: In light of the Minister of State’s comments at the weekend, will the right hon. Lady confirm that she and the Government will be reconsidering their immigration policy?

Jacqui Smith: I was, before the hon. Gentleman made his slightly pointless intervention, going through the Government’s immigration policy. I was just referring to the points system, which gives us the controls that we need to cover close to three in five non-British migrants, work-related migrants and their dependants, and students. That is significantly more than the one in five covered by the proposals for a cap or a limit, even as described by the hon. Member for Ashford today.

Anne Main: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Jacqui Smith: If the hon. Member for Ashford and the shadow Home Secretary believe so strongly in the merits of their cap, why do not they tell us what the cap will be? We know that they want one, because they keep waving it about. They should really stop being so coy. If the cap fits, they should wear it in public a bit more. They should tell us, as suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), at what level they would set it and how it would work. If they cannot tell us that, if they say that they do not have the detail and if they say that they cannot decide, what makes them think it is such a good idea?

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