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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that countries such as Estonia, with which I am very familiar, have a migrant population who come to this country to make an economic contribution
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and to learn skills but with the intention of sharing those skills and that wealth back in their own country? They do not intend to abandon their home country, but to take advantage of the free flow that my hon. Friend has rightly highlighted as an advantage of the European Union, for the collective benefit of us all.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He certainly has a lot of expertise in the matter of Estonians, in particular [ Interruption. ] I know that those on the Conservative Front Bench have a particular expertise in the matter of Etonians, but that is a different issue.

My hon. Friend’s point is absolutely correct. Many of the central and eastern European migrants who have come here have done so in order to build up a nest egg and to go home, start a business and make a contribution to the extraordinary and praiseworthy growth of those economies.

Pete Wishart: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that throughout the UK each constituent nation has different requirements? Scotland, for example, has depopulation, and we need to address that. Does he agree that we need fully to adopt the Australian version of the points-based system and to give flexibility to national Governments to deal with their own immigration requirements?

Chris Huhne: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point, which he has made before. I shall come on to exactly that point. I agree wholeheartedly with him, and when those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches pray in aid the Australian system, they clearly do not yet know the full flexibility of the system that they are talking about.

Faced with the surge in EU immigration that undoubtedly took place, which was unexpected and unplanned for, we should surely have adjusted non-EU immigration flows as a balancing factor. That is just common sense. However, the Government have not done that.

Jacqui Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman not understand what I spelled out in my speech? We have closed off tier 3 of the points-based system to reflect the impact of inter-EU migration.

Chris Huhne: I entirely accept that, but the Home Secretary also has to accept that her Government, whom she has supported, have been in office for 11 years. There were some 145,000 work-related non-EU migrants in 2006 and 124,000 in 2007. Taken with the net immigration of non-EU migrants, that is a substantial flow. Its consequences have been unplanned and unforeseen. Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted is all very well—the Government are very good at it—but it is about time that it was done.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is the first time, I think, that I have ever heard a Liberal Democrat politician, in stating that non-EU immigration should have been controlled more, suggesting that there needs to be some overall cap on immigration. Is that a new Liberal Democrat policy?

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Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman is clearly not as great a student of Liberal Democrat policy as he pretends to be. He obviously was not in the last immigration debate—

Mr. Grieve: It takes many years to understand it.

Chris Huhne: It does not take any years at all to understand it.

The official Opposition cannot escape responsibility. When the Tories were in government, they took leave of their senses and removed exit checks. Short-term work permits and student visas are, as a result, far more difficult to enforce. Some 346,000 student visas were issued in 2007 to non-EU citizens, and that is a good thing, too. Our higher education is something of which we can be proud. However, how many have returned? We have absolutely no idea who was here, who should be here or who is here. That is precisely why there is a crisis of confidence in the system.

I am glad that both the Government and the Conservatives are now in favour of a national border force, an idea that we introduced to the debate. We need it, along with exit controls, employer checks and enforcement. Between 1997 and 2006— [ Interruption. ] I realise that those on the Conservative Back Benches do not even know when they are stealing other people’s policies, but those on the Front Bench, at least, ought to know that. Between 1997 and 2006, only 37 employers were found guilty of employing illegal immigrants. The number is rising: in 2007 there were 35 criminal prosecutions, but in the six months from January to June 2008 there were 42. The Government are rightly tightening up but, by God, they are still only scratching the surface.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman was speaking about Liberal Democrat policy but now he is straying back to the 1990s. He will correct me if I am wrong but, when Paddy Ashdown was the leader of the Liberal Democrats, it was that party’s policy to allow 5 million to 6 million Hong Kong Chinese into this country.

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman is right to remind me and the House of that, but this country had certain specific obligations to the population of Hong Kong, because the people involved were British passport holders. He may not recognise those obligations, but under certain circumstances this country must allow people to come here. For example, we very honourably took in 50,000 Huguenot asylum seekers—for that is what they were—even though that number represented 1 per cent. of our entire population. Such action is entirely appropriate under certain emergency circumstances, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the point that he raises, although it is irrelevant to this debate, which is about economic migration.

The most recent estimate from the Government comes from 2001 and shows that we have 430,000 illegal immigrants. That is the result of the Government’s mismanagement—

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Chris Huhne: I will, although I think that I am giving way even more than the Home Secretary did. However, I am delighted at the interest among Labour Members in our policy.

Stephen Pound: I am profoundly grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall try not to disappoint him. He referred to the slight increase in prosecutions for the employment of illegal immigrants, but will he share with the House the real figure—that is, the number of illegal immigrants employed by each of the people prosecuted? Will he also share with the House the massive increase in the number of people affected by and caught up in those prosecutions?

Chris Huhne: I will not share those figures with the House, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman can tell us off the top of his head. If he cannot, we can both consult the Library and so discover in due course whether he has a good point. However, it was a nice stab in the dark—well done!

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Before my hon. Friend moves on, does he agree that our party has always argued for certain principles and wanted other parties to accept them? For example, we believe that this country should do its duty by those with whom it has a connection and a link—such as the people from Hong Kong, the east African Asians or the Gurkhas—but that we should always have the proper and effective immigration controls that we have not had for many years. In addition, we believe that people who are not EU citizens should be allowed to stay only if there is a justification for Britain’s having them here, and that there should be a policy to regulate that.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as he has made the matter extremely clear.

The third element of the crisis of confidence is the lack of local preparedness among councils and police, health and housing authorities. The London boroughs of Brent or Newham offer good examples of what I mean. On a recent visit to Newham, I was told that GP registrations were running tens of thousands higher than the census projections, which means that there is no follow-through in budgets for the local police or NHS. It is therefore essential that we plan for managed immigration, not least because that would allow us to prepare local areas sensibly for the arrival of those given permission to be here.

The Conservative Opposition’s motion calls for a limit to immigration, and that is certainly more sensible than some of their previous calls for an annual cap, but there is a typical failure to define terms. In addition, there is a contradiction in the motion: in one place it welcomes the real benefits of immigration, yet in another approvingly cites somebody from the other place as saying that “large-scale immigration” has uncertain benefits. It would be interesting to hear from a Conservative Member exactly what the difference is between the real benefits of a low level of immigration and the unpersuasive benefits of large-scale immigration.

Anne Main: I served on the Communities and Local Government Committee, and the report to which its Chairman referred earlier in the debate touched on exactly that point. The Government were severely criticised for not anticipating the pace of change. The communities
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that we visited felt the strains of the rapid process of change, and that is exactly what the motion is about. The sheer pace of change, and the volume of people involved, meant that some communities described themselves as feeling overwhelmed.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful for that intervention; I entirely agree with the sentiment. On the other hand—and I hope Members excuse me for being a boring old economist by background—it would have made sense to come up with a number in the motion so as to clarify the difference between the two concepts.

Let me give some examples of why a simple cap or limit of the sort that the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) proposes would be problematic. One of them comes from my own experience. When I was running a team of economists in the City, I needed at one stage to hire a PhD in economics who was an Arabic speaker. We knew that there was absolutely no chance of finding such a person in the London labour market, because we had advertised and failed to do so. [Hon. Members: “What?”] I can assure hon. Members of that, although I should add that there was one other criterion: a knowledge of middle east politics.

In that particular case, in the October of that year we needed to find an immigrant. If the hon. Gentleman’s policy of implementing a cap had been in place, and the limit had already been reached, I presume that I would have had to wait until January. That would have had a serious knock-on effect on the employment prospects of other people in the London labour market, because that person was complementary— [ Interruption . ] Conservative Front Benchers are saying, “You should train them.” I do not know whether they have any idea of how long it takes someone to study for a PhD, but it is certainly not three months, even with the substantial brain power that the Conservatives have at their disposal.

I will give a more populist example for those of us who are football fans. What about Robinho, as a Brazilian citizen? Would the Conservatives say to Manchester City, just ahead of the transfer window, that it could not possibly hire Robinho? [ I nterruption . ] The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) might say, “I hope so”, but I am sure that those who are Manchester City supporters— [ I nterruption . ] The immigration Minister is a Manchester United supporter, so he will not be sympathetic. However, for those who are Manchester City supporters, we would have to be a little more realistic about taking one year with another and looking at the needs of particular employers at particular times. It is odd to see the Conservative party, which is meant to understand the market economy, proposing a mechanism reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s Gosplan.

We should remember, too, that these jobs may well be complementary to national jobs and create more employment for UK citizens. That is why the Minister’s dalliance at the weekend is so regrettable. He must have known that there is a long track record in this country of blaming foreigners and immigrants during economic downturns, so it is particularly regrettable that he should have made those comments at this time.

Turning to the point made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who is sadly no longer in his place, a single limit is also difficult. That is not only for reasons to do with skills and its
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arbitrary nature, but because not all parts of the country have the same needs. Scotland wants growth. Its population has recently been in decline. It has less than 10 per cent. of the UK’s population with a third of the land area. It has absolutely no problem with water resources. The situation in the south-east is precisely the opposite. England as a whole is almost as densely populated as the Netherlands, and the south-east of England is the most densely populated region in Europe, at the limits of environmental sustainability. There was recently a proposal to build a desalination plant on the Thames to get fresh water, for heaven’s sake. We usually only hear about that sort of thing in Saudi Arabia. London is drier than Istanbul. The non-governmental organisation Waterwise has pointed out that the south-east of England has less water available per person than Sudan or Syria.

A points-based system should take account not only of skills but of local needs, as is the case in Australia. Neither the hon. Member for Ashford nor the Home Secretary told the House that the points-based system in Australia takes account of different economic circumstances in different parts of the country.

Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman accuses the Home Secretary and me of not telling him things. Can he tell us how, if somebody has a work permit to live in Britain, he proposes to lock them in Scotland and stop them moving away if they want to? If he does not do that, everything that he has been saying for the past two minutes is nonsense.

Chris Huhne: That would be enforced in exactly the same way as we currently enforce immigration control within our borders—by inspection of employers. If people have the right work permit, they are allowed to go on working in the same place. That is what happens in Australia. It is not rocket science. If the other two Front-Bench teams had looked at the Australian system, they would know that that is how it works. All areas of Australia are eligible for a scheme that allows sponsorship by an employer in that local area, except Brisbane, the gold coast, Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong, Melbourne and Perth. The Australians make a clear distinction between the parts of the economy that need migrant workers and population growth and those that do not.

Trevor Phillips, who was appointed by the Government, recently broached that as a potential policy option. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Ashford is making such play with the difficulties, when the system is already operating effectively in Australia.

Mr. Davidson: Do I take it that it is Liberal Democrat policy for scores of Government inspectors to tour the south of England trying to identify people who have escaped from Scotland? That seems to be the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Unless there are border controls at the Scottish border, there can be no realistic expectation that those who are allowed into Scotland will be retained there.

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The way that the scheme operates in Australia works well. There are the same policing arrangements as we have for work permits in the UK. I have cited the figures. The hon.
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Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) upbraided me for not pointing out the number of illegal immigrants who had been found in such raids. That is the standard way—ask the Home Secretary—in which we enforce these matters. There is no need for any internal border controls. That is a scare story.

Anyone in breach of a work permit in Australia is deported. It is as simple as that, exactly as it would be if someone were found to be an illegal immigrant in breach of their conditions. Another condition has merely been added.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I expect that I know rather more about the Canadian system than the hon. Gentleman knows about the Australian system, and they are very similar. I lived in Canada for nine years. I was an immigrant in Canada. Internal controls do not work unless one is prepared to say to immigrants, using the hon. Gentleman’s kind of example, “You can have your job in Scotland, with one employer, so you can’t leave that employer”—it is like slave labour—“for evermore.” That is the problem with the system that he is proposing. If people are given a time limit, as they certainly should be given in anything like such a system, within four years they will all move, as it were, from Scotland to London.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. That is not the experience in Australia. What happens there is similar to our own arrangements under any other work permit. After a certain period working in the economy, migrants are entitled to apply for citizenship. The hon. Gentleman is right that at that point they can move anywhere in the area, but the experience of Australia is that they do not. They have put down roots and stay where they have settled. That has had the desired effect of contributing to population growth in those areas.

Fiona Mactaggart rose—

Chris Huhne: I shall not give way any more. I have been unusually generous in doing so and I must make progress.

We object to the language in the motion and the fact that the Chairman of the House of Lords Committee on Economic Affairs should be cited as a sage on the matter. His Committee regrettably ignored the evidence of two extremely distinguished macro-economists, Professor Steve Nickell and Professor David Blanchflower, which was nevertheless cited in the report. Professor Nickell said that immigration might reduce the equilibrium rate of unemployment. Blanchflower said the same thing in different terms—that immigration had lowered the natural rate of unemployment. The Committee seems not to have understood what that meant. It means clearly that the economy could have dynamic gains and produce more output without unsustainable inflationary pressure. That, in turn, would boost income per head.

I also regret that the motion contains nothing about better integration and the common values of tolerance and respect for the rule of law. Those are a key part of proper policy. It is appalling, for example, that the Government have cut the teaching of English as a foreign language. Without a stress on the integration of our existing migrant communities, the Conservative
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party risks sending out a subliminal message at variance with the wording of its motion. I hope that that is not intentional; it is, however, the effect, and we regret it.

We welcome much in the Government amendment, but the inclusion of identity cards for foreign nationals on its own is enough to rule out our support. The cards are entirely symbolic, as foreign nationals have passports already; they have been targeted for ID cards for no better reason than to accustom the rest of us to the cards’ introduction and because they will not have votes at the next general election. Judging by their amendment, the Government’s migration policy is merely moving from the chaotic to the emblematic. In neither case do they deserve our support, and we oppose their amendment.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the House that from now on there will be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions to the debate.

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