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It seemed as though the Minister accepted a great deal of what we on the Opposition Benches have been saying consistently for a long time about the need to take proper account of the pressures on public services when considering population and migration policy—accepting the need for limits to net migration to help promote strong community cohesion and recognising that the previous uncontrolled approach to migration was in need of urgent change. Those initial comments appear to have been amplified and broadened over the past few days, even if they now seem to have been withdrawn. We look forward to seeing which Minister will respond to the debate and the interesting points that have been made.

The debate has exposed stark divisions on the Government Benches and highlighted yet again that the Government are talking tough, seemingly for the benefit of the tabloids, rather than taking action for the benefit of the country, and it has laid bare yet again confusion in the Home Office. I was sorry for the immigration Minister when I heard that in tonight’s Evening Standard the Prime Minister has put out a statement of support for him, which I hope will not add to his discomfort.

The debate has opened up some differences of opinion between the Home Secretary’s comments today and those of the Minister over the past few days. The Minister said:

yet the Home Secretary said today, “UK borders are amongst the most secure in the world.” The Minister said:

that is, the immigration system—

whereas the Home Secretary said, “A robust system is in operation”. The Minister said:

He also said:

yet we heard again from the Home Secretary, “There is no need for a crude cap.” Finally, we hear that the Minister said that

whereas we hear the Home Secretary saying, “We have an effective immigration system.” We wait to hear how the Minister reconciles the differences of opinion that appear to have opened up on the Government Front Bench this afternoon and how a consistent response will be achieved. We look forward to that with interest.

The debate has been wide ranging and we have heard some interesting contributions. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), who is not in his place, seemed to open up a new division between Scotland and the rest of the country. We may not have followed his line of argument, but I agree that we should not blame immigrants in a downturn. We need to treat that issue carefully. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)
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made some important points about the all-party balanced migration group. It would be interesting to know whether, as was implied in their contributions, the Government share their views.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) rightly characterised the sensitivities aroused by the debate. It was interesting to hear that he welcomed the frank comments from the Minister, even if they have been withdrawn. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was right to point out that the debate has changed. She was also right to say that the Government have mishandled the immigration system. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) correctly emphasised the beneficial impact that immigrants can have. The question is the extent, nature and circumstances of that, which is the key part of the debate.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) highlighted the bigotry and hostility that may characterise the debate and was right to draw attention to the report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs and its recommendations. We wait to see whether the Minister responds more formally and properly to a number of the points raised in the report, in particular the recommendation that

The hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) welcomed such a serious debate, and we are grateful that he welcomed our calling it. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) emphasised the extent to which immigration issues feature in his constituency postbag, as they do for so many of us. Finally, the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) drew attention to patterns of immigration in his constituency. On his point about the Gurkhas, we have made it clear that they should be entitled to settlement because of the contribution that they have made to the armed forces and to the interests of this country.

In the past 20 years, our population has grown by about 4 million. Over the next 20 years it is projected to grow by around 9 million—more than twice as fast. Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that our population of just under 61 million today will grow to nearly 63 million by 2011, 65 million by 2016 and more than 71 million by 2031. Part of the increase is accounted for by a change in Britain’s birth rate, which had been declining but is now increasing, and a rise in life expectancy. However, the most important source of population growth, as we discussed today and have seen in recent years, accounting for about 70 per cent., is inward migration from abroad. [Interruption.] We welcome the hon. Member for Eastleigh back to his place.

According to the Government, net migration is of the order of 200,000 a year. These increases are on a different scale from what we have seen in the recent past. The House of Lords Committee on Economic Affairs described the scale of net immigration as “unprecedented in our history”. Non-EU migration, excluding British citizens returning to live in this country,
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accounts for nearly 70 per cent. of all immigration. Of course overall non-EU migration includes asylum seekers, students and family members, as well as economic migrants. We can and should limit non-EU economic migration, balancing the needs of the economy with the need to promote community cohesion and moderate the impact on public services.

The figures hide more fundamental shifts in population. If a community experiences a sudden upsurge in its population, as we heard from many hon. Members in all parts of the House, the way in which it delivers and configures its police service, schools, health care and housing policies has to change. Crucially, because of the Government’s lax control and lack of information about population, that money does not follow the people. Local authorities, police forces and the health service find that their already tight budgets are stretched to breaking point by a sudden and seemingly unplanned and woefully unanticipated increase in population. The Local Government Association estimates that as many as 25 local authorities face funding shortfalls because Whitehall has underestimated the size of their populations.

Although the immigration Minister has floated some personal thinking on the issue, the Prime Minister and the Government cannot tell us whether they think that the population of this country is too low, too high or just about right. Perhaps the Minister will give us his thoughts on whether our population is growing too fast, too slowly or at about the right pace. Perhaps he will confirm whether he does think that there is a maximum limit beyond which the population of this country should not go. I remind him of his quote from last weekend:

Does he stand by that quote, and is it supported by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary?

The Minister’s weekend comments on migration and population were framed—ill-advisedly, I think—in the context of employment and the downturn in the economy. I say ill-advisedly because a population strategy needs to be able to address all conditions in the economy. The issue does not suddenly become relevant because of changed market conditions; indeed, the Government’s previous failure to act is one of the things of which we have been most critical.

The approach should be consistent, dealing with the good times as well as the bad, and with the boom as well as the bust. Our domestic unemployment rate is shockingly high. Nearly 5 million adults of working age are on out-of-work benefits—and 4 million of them, according to the Government’s own figures, want to and could work if they had the skills, incentives and support. Perhaps most shockingly of all, 1.3 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are not in education, work or training—nearly 20 per cent. more than when the Government came to power in 1997. Despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric of “British jobs for British workers”, the reality is that 80 per cent. of new jobs created since 1997 have gone to migrant workers.

Britain has gained from the arrival of highly skilled workers in this country to meet skill shortages. However, although we need to accept and be honest about the fact that some immigration is good, it is not necessarily good in every circumstance. In particular, the advantages
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should not be overstated; that is why, as the House of Lords Committee on Economic Affairs stated in its report, GDP per person is the most appropriate measure to assess the benefits of migration. On that measure, the benefits are not so clear cut.

If the Minister is serious about putting proper limits on economic migration, I welcome that seismic shift in Government thinking. If he is prepared to accept past mistakes and policy failures, that will be a welcome step forward. If he is willing to acknowledge that this country is lagging behind other European countries in managing migration, that will be a breath of fresh air. However, after more than a decade of uncontrolled immigration, strained public services stretched by population shifts and a catastrophic failure in forecasts, I, for one, am not holding my breath.

6.43 pm

The Minister of State, Home Department (Mr. Phil Woolas): I thank right hon. and hon. Members for kindly welcoming me to my new job; I am especially grateful to those on the Conservative Benches for their kind words. I pay full tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), my predecessor in this portfolio, who has, with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, put into place the architecture of an immigration policy that will introduce the biggest changes and shake-up to United Kingdom immigration since the arrival of the Windrush in the 1950s.

As the Home Secretary has already said, Britain’s migration policy needs to strike the correct balance, weighing the economic benefits with the impacts on communities and public services. This afternoon we have had a good and serious debate. The most important point to come out of it has also been a passionately held view of mine for years: that the worst thing to do is not to talk about the issue.

The second point to come out of the debate is that the House must show that it does not cast doubt on the motives of right hon. and hon. Members in making their policy changes. That is important, and I welcome the point made strongly by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). People understand that migration can bring benefits to our country, but they also rightly demand robust systems so that we can control who comes here and so that migrants abide by our laws and contribute to our society. My experience in my constituency is that the migrants themselves believe that most strongly; in that respect, there is a misunderstanding in this debate.

It is critical not only that we talk about immigration, and without questioning each other’s motives, but that this House is seen to be debating the issue. That is why I am pleased by the turnout this afternoon. I suspect that the debate will not receive as many column inches as short interviews over the weekend, but that is just the nature of the beast.

Alistair Burt: I welcome the Minister to his position; we have sparred a number of times in other contexts, and it is good to see him in his new role. May I take him back to what he has just said about the change in tone and atmosphere? That point is highly significant. Part of the Government’s problem in dealing with immigration
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has been that when in opposition, they imputed to the Conservative party completely wrong motives in respect of how we tried to deal with the problems. What has changed substantially is that the penny has dropped and that the Minister and his colleagues realise that they got it wrong. If they admitted that, it would help to clear the atmosphere and help us to go forward.

Mr. Woolas: I know the hon. Gentleman well; his constituency covers Yarl’s Wood and he has a deep knowledge of immigration issues because of that, and previous experience. It will not help if I go into people’s motives from this Dispatch Box; I simply say that it is important that we do not question each other’s motives. Let me answer those critics who have questioned mine. Anyone who knows my constituency, as the hon. Gentleman does, will know that its ethnic minority population is greater than my majority; the motive assigned to me by some outside the House would hardly be a good electoral strategy.

In answering the important points that the House has made this afternoon, let me describe how we intend to put into place the substantial change in policy described by the Home Secretary earlier. First, we are strengthening the border. Fingerprint visas are an important part of that; anyone applying for a visa—currently, three quarters of the world’s population—now has their fingerprints checked against UK databases. So far, we have enrolled more than 2.8 million sets of fingerprints. I hope that hon. Members will welcome in a non-partisan way the fact that, as at August 2008, we had detected more than 3,600 cases of identity swaps. A number of Members have said this afternoon that the credibility of immigration policy depends on the belief and reality that the Government and the authorities have the figures. What has been announced is important, and is a move towards that.

Secondly, there is e-Borders. The pilot scheme for our electronic border system has already checked more than 50 million passenger movements since January 2005, and that has contributed to more than 2,100 arrests for crimes including murder, rape and assault. E-Borders will cover 95 per cent. of European economic area nationals, excluding UK nationals who are coming back, by the end of 2010.

Thirdly, we have ID cards. We will be introducing these for foreign nationals next month, to lock people to one identity so that those who are here legally can prove it, and to help to deal with those who are here illegally. By 2014-15, 90 per cent. of foreign nationals, excluding EU nationals, will have an identity card. I believe that there is a consensus for those measures, to help to build the credibility of the policy so that the public are reassured that people are here legitimately and for a purpose. Fourthly, we will have a new single border force with new powers for front-line staff. There is not time to go into the detail on the points made by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) about the police force and its structure, but the end goal is shared.

We come to the question of the points-based system and how we answer the question that has dominated the debate. The Government will roll out in the next few weeks and months the points-based system that is at the core of the change that I have described. That system is about getting only the right people in, and no more, but it is flexible and responsive to the needs of the United
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Kingdom. Those needs, to answer the point directly, are defined as economic needs, and we will take into account the social needs of our country. We already have the migration advisory committee, chaired very capably by the excellent Professor Metcalf, and we have the Migration Impacts Forum, which provides us with advice to balance those two factors.

The points-based system that we are introducing is a more powerful cap in policy and statistically than the crude cap proposed, as I understand it, by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and his team. I shall explain briefly why. The Conservative policy with a cap, or a limit—if we want to use that word—would cover only one in five migrants under the current system. It is not a population cap. The confusion between a population cap and migration limits has bedevilled this debate. It is the misunderstanding of that by some here, by others outside and, if I may say so, particularly by some upstairs, which is bedevilling the debate. The cap proposed by the Opposition excludes refugees and asylum seekers, European Union nationals and the 350,000 plus students who come to this country each year.

Damian Green: Will the Minister make it clear that he is saying that the Government intend to lower the number of overseas students coming to this country? Is that his policy?

Mr. Woolas: That is not what I am saying at all, and it is not the implication of what I am saying. There is a clear difference between the statement that it is right to look at the population trends of our country—the hon. Gentleman quoted my interview accurately, as did the journalist in question—and the population predictions. This is where the Tory party has the rug pulled from under it. Its population predictions do not take into account the implementation of the points-based system that this Government and this Home Secretary have put in place. Therefore, the Tories political strategy of saying to the country that the Government do not control immigration and, by implication, do not control population, is blown out of the water.

Mr. Frank Field: Might the Minister find time before he finishes to comment on what I thought was the most significant sentence uttered by the Home Secretary this afternoon? She said that the Government now believe that a five-year period of work should not automatically lead to citizenship just because one has been here for five years. That breaks the link between coming here to work and growing the population by immigration.

Mr. Woolas: I would say that every utterance of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is significant, whatever her junior Ministers have been doing. The answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is yes. The answer to the question of my right hon. Friend, who is co-chair of the group on balanced migration, and the answer to the question that has been asked outside this place, is that the Government’s policy is that there should not be an automatic link between coming to this country to work and settlement at the end of that period. That is an important point.

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