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21 Oct 2008 : Column 175

In one of the pithier sentences in his newspaper article yesterday, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield said he would

That is quite a mouthful, but however much the hon. and learned Gentleman blusters—along with other Members—he rather misses the very point of the points system, which is that it is such a powerful way of controlling immigration precisely because it is flexible, and precisely because it is within our control.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): As the Home Secretary says, does not the points system give us the flexibility to enable us to import skills in, for example, the IT industry? The Home Affairs Committee recently met IT executives in India, who commended the points-based system and deplored any introduction of a cap, as proposed by the Conservatives, because a cap system has destroyed the IT industry and its relationship with India in the United States. We do not want that in our country.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend, from a position of considerable expertise, makes the very important point that we need the flexibility and control that the points-based system gives us. It is because Government can raise or lower the bar, depending on the needs of the labour market and the country as a whole, that the points system is such a fundamental change to our infrastructure for controlling immigration.

Anne Main: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Jacqui Smith: I will give way to the hon. Lady, for persistence.

Anne Main: On the points-based system, would the Secretary of State like to comment on the fact that while her party is talking tough rhetoric over here, it was widely reported in the papers that at a conference in Sylhet led by the chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and attended by six Members, it was said that:

points-based system? Which of the following is the points-based system: is it a method of control or a method of importing additional people into the country?

Jacqui Smith: I am responsible for a lot of things, but I am not, thank goodness, responsible for what the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee chooses to say—at home or abroad.

The points-based system has meant, for example, that we have been able to bar low-skilled workers from outside the EU. In fact, if tier 2 of the points system for skilled migrants had been in place last year, there would have been 12 per cent. fewer in this category coming here to work, and we now have detailed plans on the table, put forward by the independent migration advisory committee, to reduce by nearly one third the number of jobs available to migrants via the shortage occupation route.

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Mr. Field: Before the Home Secretary finishes her speech, will she share with the House what thinking the Government are giving to meeting the needs of the economy by letting people in while also breaking the link between people coming here to work and automatically getting the right to citizenship, because the population has grown by people becoming citizens although in the first place they came here to work? It is that crucial link that the group on balanced migration wants to see broken.

Jacqui Smith: I shall come on to the precise point my right hon. Friend makes, and may I also say that I believe that he and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) have made an important contribution through their work, and that I certainly want to continue to discuss it with them?

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Jacqui Smith: No.

The important issue in terms of the points system is that by adjusting the points and requirements as necessary, and based on proper evidence of what the economy needs and what is best for Britain, we can decide on the right numbers of highly skilled, skilled and temporary workers that we need in the UK.

Mr. Grieve: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Jacqui Smith: No, I will not give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman. If he wanted to have his say, he should have spoken in the debate.

The hon. Member for Ashford made a point about marriage and made quite heavy weather of the need to strengthen the rules to prevent marriage from being used as a means of avoiding immigration controls. He needs to pay more attention. We are already doing that. We are already raising the age of sponsorship and the age for applicants coming to the UK on the basis of marriage. We expect to have those rules in place by the end of the year. What is more, we are ensuring that spouses coming to the UK will need to enter into an agreement to learn English as part of the visa application process, in keeping with our goal of requiring all spouses to speak English before they come here.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con) rose—

Jacqui Smith: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, although I note that I have given way far more times than the hon. Member for Ashford did.

Patrick Mercer: I am most grateful to the Home Secretary for her generosity. I was at the meeting in Sylhet to which she referred, at which we discussed the points-based system. Views were expressed on either side of the argument, but I was interested to hear the immigration Minister, who has responsibility for immigration, say that he believed that it was too easy to get into this country. Does the Home Secretary agree?

Jacqui Smith: I have just identified the way in which the points-based system would have ensured that, had the skilled route been in place last year, 12 per cent.
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fewer people would have come here. My argument is that we need an infrastructure that enables us to make the right decisions on the basis of economic evidence, not a crude cap that at the very best would cover only one in five of those coming into this country.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition’s case is much weakened by their refusal to distinguish between controlled immigration and asylum? Any kind of crude cap shows that they do not really understand what the system is all about.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Conservatives are a party that went into the general election with a manifesto commitment to limit our asylum quota and people’s ability to come here and claim asylum. I do not know whether that is still its policy, as the hon. Member for Ashford did not refer to it today, but that is a fundamentally different issue from controlling the rest of migration.

As we set out in our draft earned citizenship Bill in July, we are making major changes to what we expect of migrants before they can progress to British citizenship. That was the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead referred to. There will no longer be an automatic right to stay here after five years. We have listened to the British people, and the message is clear: they want newcomers to speak English, work hard and play by the rules. Those changes do not make Britain anti-foreigner—far from it. They reassert the value of Britishness and rightly reaffirm that the privilege of British citizenship should be earned.

Mr. MacShane: I very much agree with the Home Secretary’s arguments, but I ask her to be little bit careful in talking about language, because 800,000 British citizens currently live in Spain, and at the last count 17 of them spoke Spanish.

One of the most worrying aspects of this whole debate is the extraordinary adoption, by the fluent French-speaking shadow Home Secretary, of President Jacques Chirac’s anti-Polish policy of limiting workers from the new Europe. Will my right hon. Friend say that the Poles who have been here have contributed to our economy? They are going home now, but this anti-Polish stuff from the shadow Home Secretary is a disgrace.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield might be a fluent French speaker, but we have heard neither French nor English from him today. My right hon. Friend is, of course, right. Recent research by the Department for Work and Pensions, for example, showed that those who had come from the new EU accession countries had made an important contribution, and that there had not been a detrimental effect on British workers either.

Mr. Grieve rose—

Jacqui Smith: I give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman for another go.

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Mr. Grieve: I am most grateful to the Home Secretary. First, may I just clear up this point, about which she asked? We intend to honour our international obligations to asylum seekers to the letter.

Secondly, if the Home Secretary intends to follow the policy that she has just announced, how will she meet the anxieties expressed by the immigration Minister that population increase in this country will continue to be driven by immigration? No points system as she has described it will enable her to deal with that point.

Mr. MacShane: Why doesn’t he make a speech?

Jacqui Smith: Fair point: why does the hon. and learned Gentleman not make a speech if he has something to say? He is promulgating a policy that would put a cap on one in five individuals who come to this country. We are proposing a policy that gives us controls over three out of five migrants who come to this country. People need to ask themselves which of the two parties has the most comprehensive approach to controlling migration.

We have overhauled the routes for those coming to the UK and we have taken swift and visible action on those who are no longer entitled to stay.

Several hon. Members rose

Jacqui Smith: I am going to make a bit of progress.

In the space of three years, we will have doubled the enforcement budget. I seem to remember that the hon. Member for Ashford and his colleagues failed to support that doubling in Committee, so he can talk tough on enforcement, but he does not vote for the money—no change there. Last year, we removed someone from this country every eight minutes—that included more than 4,200 foreign criminals—and we carried out about 7,000 operations against illegal working, leading to more than 5,500 arrests. Since introducing new penalties for employers to combat illegal working in February, we have levied more than 850 fines—some £8 million-worth—against irresponsible and exploitative employers. Of course, Conservative Members tried to weaken those measures when they came before the House, and they continue to oppose one of the Government’s key policies to prevent abuse and illegal working: identity cards.

Next month, we will issue the first compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals, as the first stage of the national identity scheme. ID cards will help us to protect against identity fraud and illegal working, they will reduce the use of multiple identities in organised crime and terrorism and help us to crack down on those trying to abuse positions of trust, and they will make it easier for people to prove that they are who they say they are.

ID cards for foreign nationals will replace old-fashioned and easily-forged paper documents, and they will make it easier for employers and sponsors to check a person’s entitlement to work and study and for the UK Border Agency to verify someone’s identity. If Conservative Members were serious about protecting Britain’s borders, they would support the introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals. I am talking not only about biometric visas, but ID cards, which are an integral part of the national identity scheme that they say they will scrap.

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We are absolutely clear that we need to strike the correct balance in Britain’s migration policy, weighing the economic benefits with impacts on communities and public services. Of course, it is vital that we take the social impact of migration into account. That is why we set up the Migration Impacts Forum to provide us with independent advice on how migration affects public services and local communities, and it is why we are also asking migrants to pay more in the future, towards a fund to help services deal with the short-term pressures of migration.

Fiona Mactaggart rose—

Jacqui Smith: I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I am coming to a conclusion.

When it comes to protecting our border, enforcing the law, selecting what skills we need here and setting high expectations of those who come, the Government will continue to act in Britain’s best interests on immigration. The points system gives us the grip and flexibility to adjust the numbers coming here according to the needs and circumstances of the time—we heard nothing new from the hon. Member for Ashford on that today. Our proposals on earned citizenship mean that migrants understand very clearly that permission to come here to work or study does not give them the right to settle here indefinitely. Again, there was silence from the hon. Gentleman on the tough measures that we will take to make sure migrants speak English, obey the law and pay their way.

The introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals next month will further strengthen our protections and provide greater reassurance. In the Conservatives’ opposition to ID cards, we see another gaping hole in their argument. This Government are facing up to the challenge, even while the shadow Home Secretary looks on, and I commend my amendment to the House.

4.29 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): We welcome this debate; the motion is right to highlight the chaos of the Government’s immigration policy. There is a widespread crisis of confidence over not just what we are aiming to do, but whether we can do it. The debate raises issues of Government policy concerning both the fairness and the integrity of the system.

There are three elements to what has been epic mismanagement. The first is the sheer scale of the mistakes, judged by the difference between projections by the Home Office and the outcome; the second is the clear lack of control at our frontiers and within them; and the third is the lack of preparedness in local communities that have been affected by unplanned and unexpected increases in population. I shall deal with each in turn.

First, if we look at immigration from the A8 countries—the central and eastern European transition member states—we can see that the UK, Ireland and Sweden were alone in agreeing to immediate freedom of movement without transitional provisions. The Home Office predicted—and the House took the decision on the basis of that prediction—that there would be 13,000 EU migrants a year, or 52,000 by the end of last year. The outcome was 766,000—1,373 per cent. higher than
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the Home Office’s forecast. In all the history of Government projections, I doubt that there is a single other number of such importance that has been proved so extraordinarily wrong.

In retrospect, we should have had transitional arrangements too. The Liberal Democrats backed the Government’s policy on the basis of the Home Office forecast, and no one can have imagined that it would be out by such an order of magnitude. However, we must remember the substantial benefits of free movement —[ Interruption. ] I am happy to give way to the immigration Minister. I am unable to make head or tail of what he is saying from a sedentary position. More British people live in the rest of the European Union than citizens from the rest of the EU live here. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is right to point that out.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a difference between those two groups, in that many of the Britons who are abroad have retired and are not competing in the job market, but eastern Europeans here are competing in the job market? Unemployment in my constituency is now more than 10 per cent. for males, so that is a cause for concern.

Chris Huhne: I certainly agree that there is a difference, but the hon. Gentleman may not like the difference that I would point to. If our citizens live on the Costa del Sol in Spain they have access to Spanish health services and are a drain on Spain’s resources. If Spanish citizens or central and eastern Europeans come here, they pay tax and national insurance here and contribute to the running of our public services. Yes, there is a difference, but not the one that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. MacShane: I am at one with that last argument. Does the hon. Gentleman share my sympathy with a south Yorkshire lady of Danish origin who has lived here for 24 years and given dedicated service as a local councillor? A newsletter was distributed about her recently, describing her as non-British. She is hurt and offended, and south Yorkshire is outraged. Which party distributed that newsletter? It was the Liberal Democrats.

Chris Huhne: I have the utmost respect for the right hon. Gentleman’s investigative skills, but perhaps he could show me the leaflet and I might then be able to comment on it. From what he says, it is not something that I would have been prepared to sign off.

We must remember the self-correcting nature of the flows of people. The anecdotal evidence—we do not yet have the official figures—shows that Polish and other central and eastern European workers are returning home to take advantage of the opportunities there. I am told that single tickets for return are selling much better than those for journeys in the other direction. It is, in other words, a different type of immigration, which could be called turnstile immigration. It is very useful both for us and for the new member states.

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