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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 2 February 2010

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Population and Immigration

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. George Mudie.)

9.30 am

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the impact of immigration on the population of the United Kingdom-a debate that needs to happen more regularly. I called for the debate because our country truly faces a turning point of historic proportions, which will profoundly affect the future of our children and subsequent generations.

In fact, this is a crisis, of which members of the public are instinctively aware and about which many of them are rightly uneasy, but the Government are in almost total denial about it. I refer to the impact of mass immigration on our population, which will inevitably have the most serious consequences for our public services, our environment, our quality of life and even the future stability of our society. In some places, that is clearly already the case.

I want to deal with three issues: first, the reliability and relevance of population projections; secondly, the impact of population growth at the projected level; and thirdly, the measures that the all-party group on balanced migration, which is co-chaired by me and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), wishes to see put in place to tackle the problem.

First, on population projections, I regret to say that the Minister of State has become increasingly wild and incautious in his remarks as the debate has developed. In a recent article for the Sunday Mirror, he said-this is a particularly vulgar quote-

This is much too serious an issue for it to be a matter of "Cameron", even in an election year. The facts should not be politicised in that way. That is why I and others formed the all-party group-it now numbers 40 Members, some of whom, I am grateful to say, are in the Chamber this morning-to press for an objective, careful, rigorous and humane approach to immigration and for cross-party agreement on what must be done.

The Minister's approach also ignores the fundamental fact that if present levels of immigration continue, immigration will account for 68 per cent. of our population growth over the next 25 years. The reality is that immigration and population have become inextricably linked. I regret to say that the Minister's remarks are a very unimpressive attempt to camouflage the failure of the Government's immigration policy.

Let us examine the facts. The Office for National Statistics-the official body responsible for these matters-projects that the UK population will reach 70 million in 20 years' time. The Government's response is to wriggle; they say that projections are not forecasts. Of course they are not, but they do tell us what is likely to happen in the absence of a major change of policy.

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The Government also say, quite correctly, that some ONS projections have been wrong in the past. Of course they can be wrong, and the further ahead they look, the greater the risk of error. That is why the Government like regularly to quote a 1965 projection of the population in 2000-35 years ahead-which assumed that the baby boom would continue and which was therefore seriously wrong. However, on a 20-year time frame, the ONS has been accurate to within plus or minus 2.5 per cent. over the past half century. At the very least, that suggests that its projections should be taken seriously. It is absolutely intolerable, and an unedifying spectacle, to see Ministers attempting to rubbish the work of valued public servants just because it does not fit their political narrative.

What distinguishes our present situation from any other period in our history is the massive impact of immigration on the size of our population. The well-known waves of immigration in past centuries were not remotely on the scale that we are seeing at present. The Huguenot and Jewish immigrations were spread over about 50 years and amounted to only about 1 per cent. of our population at the time. The east African Asians, who have been so spectacularly successful here and who have integrated so well, numbered 27,000, spread over two years.

Net foreign immigration into this country is now at 21,000 a month. That amounts to nearly 1 per cent. of our population every two years-25 times higher than at any time in the last 1,000 years. As a result, immigration now heavily outweighs the other two factors-births and deaths-in terms of population change.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I ask my hon. Friend to reflect, either now or later, on how that net immigration of 21,000 compares with the number of people returning or coming from overseas and registering with GPs. That figure has reached 600,000, but the maximum number for people returning to this country is 69,000. That indicates that immigration is substantially higher than the Government's immigration figures suggest.

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an extremely important point. Of course, we are talking about not just those who register, but the large numbers who, as we know, do not register or appear in the figures.

Death rates are fairly steady. Birth rates vary more widely. Since reaching a historic high in the baby boom of 1964, the total fertility rate has fluctuated within a fairly narrow band.

Migrationwatch, which has done so much to raise the tenor and rigour of the debate, has done research for our cross-party group. It has done some calculations on the effect of varying the birth rate while holding the death rate and net immigration constant at the level of the most recent principal projection by the ONS. Those calculations demonstrate that even if birth rates fell to the lowest level for a century, our population would still hit 70 million, not in 2029, but in 2036. Of course, the likelihood of a fall in the birth rate is reduced by the fact that one in four births is now to foreign-born mothers, who have 35 per cent. more children on average than British-born mothers.

The conclusion, therefore, is inescapable: the only way to limit our population is to bring immigration down substantially. Indeed, it must be reduced from last
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year's figure of 160,000 to 40,000 or less if we are to avoid a population of 70 million. It is also important to understand that failure to bring immigration under control will mean a continually growing population of well beyond 70 million, and even up to 80 million or 85 million, in the latter part of this century.

What is the Government's response? They tell us that immigration is already coming down, partly as a result of their new points-based system-"partly" is the word. Net foreign immigration fell by 80,000 between 2007 and 2008, the last year for which statistics are available. Of that decrease, 70,000 was due to a greater number of eastern Europeans returning home. That, of course, had nothing to do with the Government's immigration policy, because eastern Europeans are not subject to it. Even that decline is now in some doubt, however, because a Polish professor is suggesting that any return of migrants to Poland has been much smaller than British figures suggest. As for the points-based system, these are early days. We await the outcome for 2009 with interest.

What is clear, however, is that tier 4-students-is in serious difficulty. The BBC quoted a freedom of information request showing that the British high commissions in Mumbai, Delhi and Dhaka issued nearly 20,000 student visas between June and August this year. It went on to quote an Asian immigration lawyer, who said that

He said that he was now worried that the problem is causing great resentment among the local Indian community who settled here in the 1960s.

he said.

It is true that the Government have removed a couple of thousand educational institutions from the list of potential sponsors, but the checks on individual applicants are still far too weak. Perhaps the Minister will be good enough to tell us when we may expect to see the Government's review of student visas, which was originally promised for last December. While I am on the subject of the points-based system, I shall take the opportunity to commend the Government on one significant step forward-their proposal to introduce a second points-based system for economic migrants who decide that they would like to settle in Britain. That will introduce a welcome element of flexibility to the issue of work permits without, in the long term, adding to our population.

I have focused on the numbers because they are a vital element in the debate. They are what the Government seek to ignore or dodge, as the mood takes them. However, they cannot be dodged and must not be ignored. That brings me to my second topic-the impact of population growth at current and projected levels.

Population growth is already impacting on our schools. There is a rush to build more primary school places. Maternity units are affected; in some places mothers have to be turned away. Housing is also affected-nearly 40 per cent. of new households will be the result of future immigration. Housing is an increasingly serious problem. There is already a grave shortage, particularly of social housing, the waiting list for which in England has risen by 70 per cent. in seven years. We are told that there are still plenty of green fields in England and that
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only 11 per cent. of our land is built over. It may be so, but it certainly does not feel like that.

I want to offer one more, very important, quote:

That comes from a lifelong supporter of the Labour party, a former editor of the Daily Mirror, Mike Molloy, writing in a newspaper last week. It is not a matter only of impressions. England as a whole is now, with Holland, the most crowded country in Europe. We are nearly twice as crowded as Germany and four times as crowded as France. One need only go to those two countries to see that that is the truth. The public understand very well that we simply cannot go on like this without a serious deterioration in our quality of life.

What more should we do? First, there should be an overarching political commitment to take the measures necessary to get immigration down. No single measure will achieve that. There is no silver bullet. Secondly, there should be a serious effort to tighten the chaotic state of student visas. As I mentioned, some bogus colleges have been eliminated from the list of potential sponsors, and those that can still sponsor students now have some new responsibilities. That is welcome, but the universities and colleges that issue the key document-the confirmation of acceptance for studies-are the very same bodies that have a clear financial interest in the admission of foreign students to the UK. We must return to a situation in which there is also a check by a UK-based immigration officer before a visa is issued, especially in countries of immigration concern. Those highly trained and exceptional immigration officers have the local knowledge that will help them to detect bogus applications-something that an admissions tutor based in Britain is clearly incapable of doing. On work permits, we would like the bar to be raised in the points-based system, at least for as long as we have 2.5 million of our own people unemployed in Britain.

That leaves marriage as the third major category. Clearly there can be no question of preventing genuine marriage by a British citizen to a foreign national, provided that both are of a suitable age-at present 21. However, the days when we could allow marriages to be arranged overseas for the purpose of immigration must now come to an end. It is not helpful to the individuals concerned, who can often come under the most severe and unhappy family pressure. Nor is it any help in integrating those communities into our society. It is time to move on-a view shared by many in the communities concerned.

The public are right to be deeply concerned. In a recent survey, 85 per cent. were worried about the UK population reaching 70 million, and 50 per cent. were very worried. They want a Government, of whatever party, who face up to the reality of the numbers and take firm and effective action in response. That is also what the all-party group wants.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. Many hon. Members want to participate in the debate. I ask hon. Members to bear in mind the fact that the Front-Bench speeches should commence no later than 10.30.

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9.46 am

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I want to begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). At a time when most people did not want to discuss immigration, he secured immigration debates in this Chamber and in the House. It was largely through his pioneering bravery that I, too, became more vocal in the debate. I am looking for slightly different answers to the questions that he poses. I hope that by the end of the debate, when we have heard all three party spokesmen, we shall have a clear idea of the programmes that will be offered to the electorate.

I also hope that, as this debate will probably be our last on the subject before the general election, all three parties might want to apologise to the country for what they have allowed to happen to it. I am not saying that the policy was deliberate at first, or that it was engineered, as suggested in the quotation used a moment ago by my friend, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. However, what appeared to be an open-door immigration policy has wrought havoc in many sections of our community, particularly among the poorest. As we are now in an age when we feel that we should apologise for what, in our current judgment, we see to have been appalling actions, even though we could not have had any effect on them, the electorate might welcome some more up-to-date apologies for what has happened to their country.

In some areas, Britain has changed. I do not blame the immigrants-the new arrivals, who came here to make a better life. I blame us, the political class, not only for not seeing that as an issue, or perceiving what the long-term consequences would be, although that was bad enough. I also blame us for a much more deep-seated failure to have any coherent sense of what the nation stands for. Because we did not have any clear idea of what Britain stood for, except for some vague and wonderful concept of our having always been tolerant-and I must say that my own experience does not lead me to believe that that was more than skin deep-we failed to take on from the Edwardian age what we now think it means to be a citizen of this country. None of us can blame the new arrivals, who were often invited by us to come here without knowing what we stood for and with no benchmarks to judge their standards by, for simply continuing to protect and promote the culture that they brought with them. The fault is not theirs, but it is certainly ours.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The right hon. Gentleman is right to mention tolerance, which is a great tradition of our country. Pressures on jobs, housing and public services have been mentioned, but a more marginal consequence of immigration is that our traditions and culture are under threat-by the increasing use of sharia councils, for instance. That does nothing to promote equality. We should not be tolerant of that.

Mr. Field: No, but think of what happens in Afghanistan. If the voters there feel that the "elected" Government cannot deliver common or garden justice, they will seek other forms to give order and principle to their lives. It is easy to get headlines by saying that we should not have sharia law here, but we ought seriously to consider why some people look to other ways of imposing discipline,
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order and fairness, and what lessons that might have for our widespread and more accepted judicial system.

First, as I said, I look for an apology from all three political parties. At worst, they participated in the silence while this great change was happening to our country. Secondly, they should apologise-[Interruption.] Hon. Members should not laugh. Immigration on this scale has forced down wages.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I was not laughing, but snorting with derision. Immigration was fine when the right hon. Gentleman and the Government whom he supported were elected in 1997. There was nothing wrong then. The problem has arisen in the past 10 years. I know that an election is coming up, and that the right hon. Gentleman, for largely historical reasons, will be running as a Labour candidate and will therefore be supporting the Government, but for him to ask other parties to apologise for the mess created by his own party is a bit rich.

Mr. Field: The thought that I will be running "historically" as a Labour candidate has driven the Whip from the Chamber. Perhaps he is going to write it down on tablets of stone.

We have to make a distinction between the machinery left by the previous Government and the actual numbers. Indeed, one very good thing happened recently when the Conservative leader said that he wished to reduce net immigration to the levels of the early 1990s, not the late 1990s. Although I deplore what has happened since Labour came to power, I am not blind to the fact that the issue did not start with us; there was an acceleration in net migration under the previous Conservative Government.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr. Field: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann).

Damian Green: The right hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way again. Will he acknowledge the simple fact that immigration has increased fourfold under the Government whom he supports? Many of his complaints about the pressure that immigration puts on public services, some of which I share-he and I do not disagree much about the solution-have come about in the past decade. To blame all three political parties is a bit rich.

Mr. Field: I shall continue to do so; the electorate will decide. I agree that there is a difference in policy between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party. The Liberals are quite open about having an open-borders policy, inviting in anyone who wants to come here. That has not been Conservative party policy, and it is certainly not our policy.

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