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4.56 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I wish to make two very simple points. I speak as joint chairman of the all-party group on balanced migration; no doubt the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), the other chairman, will also speak if he manages to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

First, I want to emphasise the impact that recent levels of immigration have had on many of our constituents, who have not been heard about in this debate—certainly not during the last contribution. Secondly, I want to mention what I thought was new from the Home Secretary. Conservative Front Benchers, of course, wanted to make much of what they thought was the difference between the views of the Home Secretary and those of the immigration Minister; perhaps a careful study of Hansard tomorrow will suggest that that difference is less than they were hoping for.

What we have not heard so far in this debate, for good reasons, is the voice of our constituents. They have been on the receiving end of immigration. It is all very well to give a partial view, based on what the House of Lords report said about the gains or non-gains of immigration in respect of the impact on our national income. However, we ought also to think about what immigration has meant in human terms. In the recent past, we have experienced in this country a rate of immigration the like of which we have never experienced. It would be extraordinary if a country as densely populated as ours could take that rate of immigration with no adverse consequences for some of our constituents, particularly the low-paid ones.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): I am listening with real interest to my right hon. Friend, who has a lot of experience in these matters. As the child of a migrant myself, having grown up in the ’70s and ’80s at schools in this country, and often at times of depression, I think that there was far more racism in our schools then than there is now. I accept the fact that there are issues of churn. However, to be fair, if we look at cohesion across the board, we see that more than 80 per cent. of people in our local communities feel that they live in a cohesive community.

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Mr. Field: I am particularly grateful for that intervention and would like to emphasise the key words that my hon. Friend uttered. He was here as a child, newly arrived, when the economy was not booming. One of the things that I so welcomed about the speech by my hon. Friend the immigration Minister is that he was clearly looking at a country in which—let me put it euphemistically—a boom might not go on for ever. We have a duty to plan for the worst, but we should obviously hope for the best. I emphasise that it would be inconceivable for anyone in this House to argue that the levels of immigration we have experienced have had no impact on the chances of employment for many of our lowest-paid constituents, or that they have had no impact on wage rates. Of course we can see gains when we look at the global figures, but they look a lot more sparse when they are averaged out among all of us. Levels of immigration have given rise to a new servant class in this country.

Chris Huhne rose—

Mr. Field: The hon. Gentleman took a very long time, and I am anxious that other Members should get a chance.

The reintroduction of a servant class for those of the upper middle class has clearly meant very big gains for them, and has significantly changed their standards of living. It has not been so good for those at the bottom of the pile who have been competing for those jobs. My first point is that at least there is now some agreement among all parties that we have experienced record levels of migration to this country, and although that has had some beneficial effects, it would be absurd to argue that it has not had some less beneficial effects, particularly for the poorest members of society, which is my second point.

My third point is that we ought to be careful about the idea of the society to which we belong. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) raised that point just now. We do not know the consequences for people’s sense of identity, and that of those around them, when they have been subjected to levels of immigration that we have never experienced in our history. We are talking about 25 times what we have normally experienced. Perhaps we have the most extraordinary ability to adapt, but I wonder about that.

I want to come back to this point, if I have time. At a time when the Government are developing a positive view of citizenship, I hope that that view embraces my constituents who are as English, or British, as I am. All of us need our sense of national identity defined and reaffirmed. It is not merely something that we want newcomers to our society to embrace; there is a real loss of identity, regardless of immigration, among the host population itself. I would like the idea of an earned citizenship to be extended to all of us. We should not take it automatically that just because we are born here, we know what it is like and what is expected of us as citizens in our society.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) looks puzzled by that, which shows the extent of the problem. If we had been in this Chamber in Edwardian times, we would have all had a clear idea that one of our central duties was to teach ourselves and the population the idea of being a good citizen. For 50 years in this country, we have somehow assumed that people get that
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idea by osmosis. It is quite clear, when we look at the disorder in our streets—the rise in levels of violence and so on—that ideas of citizenship do not automatically pass from one generation to another. While it is crucial for the question of immigration that we look at how we earn our citizenship—the Government call it positive citizenship—we need to extend the idea to embrace all of us.

The last factor that my constituents would want represented in the debate is that we have experienced, since the end of 1992, growth that this country has never experienced before. Sadly, it looks as if that growth is now faltering. It is foolish to think that the policies that may have been appropriate during the most rapid economic growth that we have ever experienced will also work during a downturn. Therefore, I applaud what the immigration Minister said in sounding a note that acknowledged that the Government realise that in an economy where there might be fewer jobs, we might need a very different immigration policy from the one that we have pursued in the recent past.

That brings me to my second, crucial point, which is one that the cross-party group on balanced migration has tried to make. In the past, we have assumed that the needs of the economy can be served in a way that allows people who come here to work to gain citizenship automatically. The Home Secretary made a very important point in her speech, which was lost in some quarters of the House. It was that we ought now to put up for question the idea that someone who has been here for five years should automatically gain citizenship. If that is so, I do not see much difference between the speech that we have heard today from the Home Secretary and the two speeches that we have heard so far from the immigration Minister.

The main point that the cross-party balanced migration group has been trying to introduce into the debate in this place and in the country is that the immediate needs of the economy for people to come here and fill vacancies that cannot be filled by people who are already here do not necessarily mean that those people ought automatically to get citizenship. The main thrust of our argument is that the needs of the economy are different from the needs of citizenship and the wider society.

What I hope we will hear from the Government—perhaps we will hear an even clearer statement when my hon. Friend the Minister winds up later—is that earned citizenship here will be capped. We would not expect the Minister to say what that cap should be at this early stage of the debate, given that although the Opposition claim that capping the number of people coming here to work has long been their policy, the hon. Member for Ashford could not tell us where that cap might be set.

Chris Huhne rose—

Mr. Field: I want to finish now, if I may.

However, it is important that we in the House begin to think of a two-part points system: points to come here, so that people come here only because there are vacancies that cannot be filled by people who are already here, and then points to earn citizenship. If we can send out the message that we are going to break the link between the needs of the economy and growing the population through immigration, this debate that the Opposition have called will have been well worth while.

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5.7 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I commend the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) on his speech and hope that the House listened with great care to what he said in this important debate.

For centuries the British isles have been a destination for immigrants and a source of emigrants. The flow of people has contributed to one of the strongest societies and one of the most dynamic economies in the world. Likewise, Britons have emigrated across the world, taking with them their skills and our customs, traditions and, of course, language. The benefits of migration are therefore not in any doubt. Our country, just like any other, would be much the poorer but for the contribution that immigrants have made here and that Britons have made overseas.

However, I hope that the House paid attention to the points that the right hon. Gentleman made. Many of us believe, as do many of our constituents—their voices have been woefully under-heard in the Chamber—that we should reflect the deep anxiety in the country and that we must ease the pressure that the sheer scale of current immigration is placing on our public services, environment and, indeed, the cohesion of our society.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, he and I arrived at many of the same conclusions—he rather ahead of me—and decided to form the cross-party group on balanced migration. The purpose was to try to have a rational debate based on the facts—an extremely unusual thing in this debate—to put forward some positive and workable proposals, and to listen to the ideas that others wish to put forward in a rather more forgiving atmosphere. To that end we sent every hon. Member a copy of our booklet, which sets out a new approach to controlling immigration and which was headed by the right hon. Gentleman “Balanced migration”. He and I are very grateful to the Home Secretary for receiving us and for giving us an encouraging and courteous reception. We now have high hopes from the words that have been expressed by the immigration Minister.

I want to deal briefly with two misconceptions. Some people say that recession means that immigration is no longer an issue. Others point to departing Poles and draw the same conclusion. We have published research this week that clearly shows that, during the three recessions of the past 38 years—1975-76, 1981-82 and 1993—immigration did indeed decline for a year or two during each one. It then picked up afterwards. Indeed, it has picked up dramatically since 1997, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said. This is clearly no answer to the immigration problem, unless of course we are to live in an endless recession.

On the second point, it is true that some Poles and other European Union migrants are going home, but others are still coming. The probability is that arrivals and departures will come into balance in a few years’ time. The conclusion to draw, therefore, is that the bulk of continuing immigration will inevitably be from outside the EU and could therefore be controlled if the Government had the political will to do so. Already, in 2006, 68 per cent. of foreign immigration was from countries outside the European Union.

All of us who are concerned about this matter were delighted that the new Minister suggested at the weekend that the Government were now thinking afresh on the
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principles that underpin immigration policy. That is greatly to be welcomed. Let me remind the House precisely what he said:

That implies two things. First, it implies that there will be a limit on immigration. Secondly, it suggests that the Government appear to accept the thrust of our argument that, to stabilise our population, immigration should be brought into line with emigration.

This change is certainly necessary. According to the Government’s own statistics, England’s population will increase by nearly 10 million by 2031, and 70 per cent. of that increase—that is, 7 million people, or seven times the population of Birmingham—will be a result of immigration. They will all need to be housed. The Government’s own household projections show that immigration will account for 33 per cent. of new households. When the figures are updated with the 2006 population estimates, the percentage will be closer to 39 per cent. Clearly, further action is essential.

Mr. Davidson: If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to accept that there has to be action on the 68 per cent. of immigration that comes from outwith the EU, does he have a policy for dealing with the 32 per cent.—on his figures—that comes from within the EU? Surely that is the elephant in the room. We cannot control the external migration if we are not prepared to control the internal migration.

Mr. Soames: That is certainly the elephant in the hon. Gentleman’s room. The answer is that we are obliged by treaty obligation to allow those people to come here and to move freely through the European Union, just as we can. The question is whether the Government have the will to control the other part of the equation, and whether they choose to exert it.

I give the Government credit for moving towards a major reform of the immigration system; credit where credit is due. But the points-based system lacks one essential and critical aspect: a limit on the number of people allowed to settle here. The reality is that a points system with no limit on the numbers able to come and settle here is largely pointless. This brings me to a key point of the cross-party group’s proposal, which was elegantly espoused by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. It is that we should split economic migration from settlement. We must balance the needs of the economy with those of society, while honouring our EU and other commitments.

Chris Huhne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soames: I will not give way.

Hence our proposal arises to permit skilled workers from outside the EU to come to Britain, provided that both the vacancy and their qualifications are genuine, but on the strict understanding that it is for a maximum of four years. The number allowed to settle here would thus be confined to a small number selected by a further points system.

The longer-term policy aim would be to bring immigration into line with emigration—hence the term “balanced migration”. The Minister said in his BBC
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interview on Sunday that he would ensure that breaking the limit between economic migrants and settlement would be part of Government policy. That, too, is extremely welcome. However, like many hon. Members and members of the public, we have all come to treat the Government’s words with caution and, in light of today, they clearly need to carry a health warning.

Let me end, if I may, by asking the Minister three very simple questions, which I would like him to answer at the end of the debate. First, given that he does not want the population of the UK to rise to 70 million, he must now want to limit immigration to the UK. Will he confirm to House tonight that there will be such a limit on the number of people allowed to settle here? Yes or no? Secondly, how will that limit work in practice? Thirdly, will he confirm that the Government will break the link between non-EU citizens being given the right work here and the almost automatic right that they have to settle here? The truth is this—that if our population is to be stabilised, which it absolutely must be, immigration has to be substantially reduced. What the House needs to know is the scale of the Government’s effort, commitment and will to bringing down the scale of current immigration.

5.16 pm

Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who made excellent speeches. In welcoming this debate, may I make the point that immigration has been the taboo subject of British politics for far too long? The reason is self-evident. Ever since Enoch Powell made his infamous speech in Birmingham back in 1968, politicians from mainstream parties—with a few exceptions who have perhaps been brave, foolish or sometimes both—have avoided the subject for fear of uttering a wrong word or saying something politically incorrect, and thus being labelled as racist or anti-immigrant.

Because mainstream politicians have not debated such issues as numbers and the effect that immigration might—I say might—have on public services, particularly in inner-city areas, the only parties that have talked about those issues have been racist or xenophobic parties such as the British National party, which has been left with a wide-open field to talk about immigration on its own terms and to draw its own conclusions.

There is not the slightest doubt, furthermore, that the wider electorate want the mainstream parties to debate this issue. In nearly every single opinion poll asking voters what issues they are most concerned about, immigration appears as one of the top five priorities. For us to ignore the fact that the electorate want us to debate the issue and instead to peddle the simplistic mantra that globalisation is wonderful, that we need immigration to grow the economy and that the trickle-down effect benefits everybody, while ignoring the very real pressures that an increasing population puts on public services, particularly in inner-city areas, does a great disservice to the cause of good community relations in our multicultural society.

As I have already said, I welcome this debate and I also welcome the frank comments made by the new immigration Minister, irrespective of whether he subsequently retracted them. I support the Government’s
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steps to make the immigration system stronger and fairer, particularly to ensure that only applicants with skills needed here can come to work or study and that newcomers learn to speak English. But, above all, I welcome the fact that the Government will now ensure that people visiting the United Kingdom are counted in and counted out. At long last, we will know how many people enter the country legally each year, and how many leave.

For a number of years, after embarkation controls were abandoned by the previous Conservative Government, I tabled questions asking how many people came legally to visit and study, and how many left. The Home Office consistently told me that an average of nearly 900,000 people came every year, yet it had no idea whatever how many left. That was nonsense, and I welcome the change proposed by the Home Secretary.

The constituency that I represent—Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath—is probably the most diverse and multicultural in the country. Apart from what we could call the old immigration—from Ireland, Scotland and Wales—there has been immigration into Birmingham and my constituency from Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Yemen and, latterly, from Somalia and the horn of Africa. The multicultural make-up of my constituency and Birmingham has added to the vitality of that great city.

We must be careful, however, that we do not undermine the excellent community relations that we have built up in that city. The spectre of rising unemployment poses the greatest threat to multicultural cohesion because it is self-evident that if unemployment rises, we need fewer people coming to the country, as the new immigration Minister has said, especially when in parts of my constituency, in Sparkbrook, the unemployment rate has remained above 15 per cent. even during the 10 years of economic growth and falling unemployment nationally.

Mr. Davidson: Given that parts of my constituency have similar male unemployment figures, does my hon. Friend agree that we need to consider controls over EU migration, and not just controls over migration from outwith the EU?

Mr. Godsiff: As always, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and, as always, I agree with him.

It is right that we debate the controversial issue of immigration rather than avoiding it. I support and welcome the all-party balanced migration group, set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex, and its informed contribution to the debate about immigration. My constituents—many of whom, as I said, are immigrants—want an immigration system that is firm and fair. I welcome much that the Government are doing, and I commend the amendment.

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