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Had we always made room for sensible, rational discussion on immigration, the immigration system would have been sharpened and improved to the benefit not just of the indigenous population—by which I mean
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both the black and white indigenous population—but of those seeking new lives in the UK. Those who seek to silence debate on this topic by crying racism should be under no illusions about the nature of the current system. It is, I am afraid, often confused, inequitable, unjust and so administratively chaotic that not only is the British taxpayer being failed but legitimate migrants and illegal immigrants alike are often being mistreated.

I hope that the House will forgive me for being slightly parochial, but I represent the Cities of London and Westminster constituency in the heart of our capital. Westminster especially—which to most British people is uninhabitable because of the exorbitant cost of renting or owning property here—is one of the top destinations for immigrants arriving in Britain for the first time. It is a constituency of the very rich and the very poor, and an area of incredible hyperdiversity and hypermobility. That causes some very real problems on the ground, and I spoke about them in the House only a couple of weeks ago when I set out the difficulty faced by Westminster city council in providing services for all those unaccounted for in census data. I am sure that those difficulties will be familiar to all hon. Members who represent other inner-city seats.

Immigration is the single biggest issue in my constituency postbag. It gives me—or I suppose it would be more honest for me to say my private office—daily exposure to the chaos that is rife in the Home Office system. I do not want to make an overly partisan point, as it is fair to say that many of the problems predate 1997. I suspect that they will remain for some years to come unless we get a grip on them.

The people who write to me are not necessarily voters, but my staff and I devote enormous amounts of time to trying to help them with their various complaints against the Home Office. In preparing this speech, I looked only at the last week of cases that have been brought to my attention. It was a light to medium case load, with nothing exceptional and no out-of-the-ordinary cases. From the replies that I have received from the Home Office, it is clear that there were three cases in which a constituent had arrived in the UK many years ago, had been denied asylum, had had numerous appeals rejected and yet was still living here—and that is a problem to which a number of other contributors to the debate have alluded.

In fact, one person had been told that he had no basis of stay and yet he resided—I can only assume mistakenly—in one of our precious social housing properties. That is heartbreaking, considering the number of letters that I get letters from lifelong Westminster residents who are forced to leave the capital as a result of being employed in low-paid jobs that make them just wealthy enough not to be considered a priority for social housing.

I do not wish to be accused of taking any of the Government’s actions out of context for political gain in this debate, so I shall simply read the UK Border Agency’s reply to another of my other constituency cases that came in this week. I shall call the constituent Mr. A, for privacy reasons, but the letter speaks for itself in exemplifying just how ludicrous our immigration system can be. It states:

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So he arrived more than 12 years ago, and his asylum claim was refused just two days later. The letter continues:

The House should note that that was two years after he had been refused asylum.

Again, another three years seem to have passed in the flick of an eye.

There was a further reconsideration of his application on 2 March 2006, and he was again found to be ineligible, as he had not declared that he had a criminal conviction. Further representations were submitted in June 2006 and a request for humanitarian protection was made at that stage.

The case remains outstanding. I am sorry to have gone into such detail, but it is not untypical of the sort of case that MPs see. Heavenly only knows when it will be resolved, but the whole sorry catalogue of events represents a relatively unexceptional constituency case and raises many questions. For instance, why, after he had been refused asylum so often, was this constituent not deported?

I could go into some detail about other, similar cases but I appreciate that time is tight in this debate. However, I feel that the easiest option for reducing the overall number of immigrants would be the most ill-advised route in many ways and, to that extent, I do not entirely agree with the contributions that have been made by hon. Members on either side of the House.

An ever-expanding number of non-EU nationals—and especially people working in highly skilled, global industries—are coming to this country and boosting our economy. A drastic reduction in that group would be neither desirable nor advisable. Similarly, we could relatively easily slash the number of non-EU students coming here to study, or prevent them from staying on to work for two years after graduation. However, I believe that the Labour Government have got that matter absolutely right over the past 10 years: we need to encourage that set of people, not least because many of them will return home as great ambassadors for this country in the decade to come.

Among the other groups of people who come to live here are the many dependants, relatives and would-be relatives of previous immigrants. They often arrive with very few skills and little understanding of the English language. I think that all hon. Members accept that that issue will continue to be very sensitive, and there are strong practical reasons why Members of Parliament who are in contact with the Home Office need to ensure that at least some of those immigrants will continue to come to these shores. A degree of hypocrisy is often evident: we all make great representations on behalf of our constituents because we recognise that there might
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be some electoral advantage down the line, but we also make strong statements about the generality of the matter. Complaints about immigration can be applied to each and every one of us, as Members of Parliament, just as much as they are to the Home Office.

It seems to me that we could also look to stem the number of asylum seekers who come here as political refugees, or indeed to restrict the major immigration influx coming from the EU. As many other hon. Members have pointed out today, however, we are signatories to several international agreements and we are also a signed-up member of the EU. Short of withdrawing from such treaties and reneging on our duties as an EU member state, there is little that we can do to stop such parties coming to our shores. Even so, it was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Elmet and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) make it clear that they felt that it should be possible for nations in an expanded EU to have some special immigration arrangements.

Given the severe limitations on our room to manoeuvre, it is all the more important that we deal effectively, swiftly and pragmatically with each and every person who makes an application to live here. I fear that the quota system for immigration will lead to a distortion of statistics, priorities and our economic needs. Above all, it is therefore crucial that we tighten the current decision-making process, stand firm once a decision has been made, and act quickly to remove any person found to have no basis of stay.

As other hon. Members have pointed out, the relatively clement economic weather until recently has allowed us to turn something of a blind eye to many of the problems that I have described. However, a continued refusal to get a grip on our immigration system risks causing conflict in British communities that will haunt us in the decades to come.

6.18 pm

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I see that the immigration Minister has returned to the Chamber, and I welcome him back to his place, as many of the comments that I intend to make will be aimed in his direction. I and many of my colleagues support his intervention in the debate over the weekend—certainly his first intervention, anyway.

I rise to speak against the rather negative motion tabled by the Conservative Opposition. In my short contribution, I shall draw on my own experience of representing the multi-ethnic and multicultural town of Reading for the best part of 25 years—first as a councillor and then, for the past 11 years or so, as its Member of Parliament. I will also draw on the evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee about the Government’s new points-based immigration system and the advantages that it will bring.

We all, if all too rarely, get moments of stunning clarity—others might call them flashes of inspiration—in our busy lives as Members of Parliament. Luckily for me, I was uncharacteristically inspired at an event one Saturday in the summer of 2004 in helping to produce a piece of work of which I am immensely proud. It became a book celebrating the contribution to Reading made by the people who came to our town from all over the world in search of a better life. Two years later, with
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the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Reading borough council and local charities and volunteers, our book, “Routes to Reading”, was published, chronicling the stories of 19 people—from Bosnia to Barbados, from Italy to Ireland, from Uganda to Ukraine—who now make up the rich and diverse community of Reading. I urge other hon. Members to set up similar projects in their constituencies, particularly if, like me, they are sick to the back teeth of immigrant communities being regularly trashed by sections of the media who seem happy to do the hate-filled work of the British National party for them.

I will read into the record the background to the Reading immigrants project, as it gives a useful insight into the patterns of immigration to my town:

who some Conservative Members will remember with affection.

My town is a diverse community with a proud record of good race relations. While it is legitimate for us to talk about community cohesion and the impact of large-scale migration, let us never fall into the trap of using language so intemperate that we demonise people who have made such a contribution to the country and communities in which we live.

Having celebrated the contribution made by the majority of hard-working members of our immigrant communities, I turn to the policies designed to ensure that migration is properly managed and that our systems are fair and transparent. I support the introduction of the points-based immigration system; indeed, my only regret is that the Government failed to introduce it much earlier. I have just returned from a Home Affairs Committee visit to India and Bangladesh, where we saw the points-based system in operation. It became clear to members of the Committee that it was working pretty well in the visa centres that we visited in Dhaka and Delhi. However, concerns were expressed in three areas. First, should there be an independent review of decisions, not just the administrative case review that takes place at the moment? Secondly, will global companies, many of which are based in India, be able to obtain the work permits that
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they need to enable their businesses to prosper? Thirdly—we have all read about this in the press—Bangladeshi restaurateurs were worried about potential shortages of trained curry chefs and their inability to qualify through the tier 2 process.

Having taken evidence—unlike the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), I was actually at the various meetings in Bangladesh—my personal view is that those concerns are unfounded or resolvable. For example, it would be perfectly possible to introduce a more transparent system into refusal decisions, but I do not think that anyone would want us to take the route of allowing for a judicial review and the inevitable delays that that would trigger. A judicial review in such circumstances would only jam up the process; and after all, a work permit is not an inalienable human right.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) said, we had an excellent meeting with the trade association, the National Association of Services and Software Companies, or NASSCOM—a body with more than 1,200 members, of which more than 250 are global companies from the UK, the United States, the European Union, Japan and China. It was clear from talking to the people at NASSCOM that on the whole the points-based system was working well, and that many of their initial fears were unfounded. Based on a study carried out in 2007, NASSCOM found that the average stay of employees of its member companies in the UK was 18 months, so the pattern of migration was short-term working rather than longer-term settlement.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Given the hon. Gentleman’s expertise having served on the Select Committee, does he feel that the points-based system could be used at times of economic downturn, as I would like, to bring about a net reduction in population, taking advantage of overall emigration from this country?

Martin Salter: The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to bring my conclusions into the middle of my speech. I think that my hon. Friend the Minister would say that the points-based system, as opposed to a crude cap, gives us levers and valves that can be turned within the existing five tiers to manage the flow of numbers, but based against the needs of communities, public services and the economy. That is the difference between the two approaches.

The Conservative motion is somewhat incoherent. We have heard good contributions from Conservative Members that make the case for an overall cap in numbers. However, the motion recognises that nothing can be done about the flow of workers in and out of the EU. In that context, a cap would be fairly meaningless, and Conservative Members should reflect on that.

There is another reason why a crude cap should be approached very carefully. We heard from NASSCOM that the US quota system issues about 65,000 work permit visas annually. The quota opens on 1 April. By 6 April, there are about 150,000 applications, which are then dished out on a lottery basis. That hardly takes into account the needs of business or the changing needs of the economy over a 12-month cycle.

The Committee also considered what would be the likely impact on our economy if Britain were to introduce such a crude cap. We asked British high commission
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staff to estimate the impact on UK business of a quota on UK immigration. Overall, the value of bilateral UK-India trade alone is £9 billion annually. The staff considered that the Indian IT sector in the UK is worth £3 billion to £4 billion annually. It was made clear to us that if we took the approach of a crude cap, as proposed in the motion and elsewhere, much of that business would transfer to eastern European countries and the British economy stood to be the net loser. The points-based system is the right approach, but it will need Ministers who are forthright enough to say no, and who will turn the taps, pull the levers and use the mechanisms that the system delivers to control and manage migration.

I have worked with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and with parties across the House in trying to get justice for Gurkhas. How would that fit with the Conservatives’ proposed cap? If a quota system were introduced tomorrow, would they breach it if we got the right policy decision from the Home Secretary, as I hope we will in a few weeks’ time, to allow in a few Gurkhas each month—people who are prepared to put themselves in the way of a bullet to defend this country, and who we all want, in our heart of hearts, to be given settlement rights in this country? I am afraid that the Conservatives have not thought through their policies, despite the fact that they have made some good contributions.

Finally, I want to turn to what occurred in Sylhet as regards the concerns of the Bangladeshi restaurateurs. We have between 300,000 and 400,000 people of Bangladeshi origin in Britain, some of whom are in the most deprived communities. I do not accept the argument that it is only possible to recruit a trained Bangladeshi curry chef from people who are already living in Bangladesh. Nor do I accept the absurd contention in the latest edition of Curry Life—a magazine that I commend to all hon. Members—that the points-based system is completely racist. A system that applies equally to a white Russian, a black Jamaican or someone from south Asia is not racially motivated. It is about meeting the needs of the economy, and the needs of the restaurant sector can be met by internal UK recruitment or the establishment of a college in Sylhet, part-funded by the Department for International Development, which will allow the training of chefs to enable them to acquire the tier 2 qualification.

This is an important debate, if not a coherent motion. It is right and proper that we have a new approach to migration, but it is equally right and proper that we clearly acknowledge the massive contribution of immigrant communities to all our communities and to making Britain the liberal, tolerant society that we should all be proud of.

6.30 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I am delighted by the welcome given by many Members on the Government Benches to this debate. When I was preparing my comments over the weekend, I wondered whether it would be an example of a brave new period of bipartisanship, given that the new immigration Minister, whom I welcome to his position, was making statements in the press following his appointment, such as


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