Previous Section Index Home Page

2 Feb 2010 : Column 13WH—continued

10.17 am

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on securing this debate. I am mindful of the fact that other Members want to speak too, so I shall limit my remarks.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who I have listened to in previous debates and who has influenced my thinking on immigration over the years, quite rightly made reference to the conspiracy of silence of political parties on this issue. That conspiracy had its impact on me during the last general election, when I put out a leaflet entitled, "Unlimited immigration?", to raise the issue. I found myself being eviscerated in the liberal press-Channel 4 and The Guardian-and indeed by my Labour opponents.

Subsequently, I think that we have seen a welcome change during this Parliament among politicians and there has been a willingness to talk about the issue. Furthermore, although I think that there has been acceptable criticism of the Minister regarding his comments in the Daily Mirror, he has engaged a great deal more with the country on this issue, which is important.

Bob Spink: In 2005, at the last general election, I called for illegal immigrants to be sent back immediately and my local political opponents reported me to the race relations board for doing so. That incident was covered widely in the broadsheet press. The case was eventually thrown out, but it illustrates how difficult it is for MPs to deal with this very real problem that people out there are thinking about; it is one of the main problems that constituents are thinking about. Our leaving a vacuum is the reason for the rise of the BNP, which is bad for our politics.

Mr. Pelling: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, because it prompts me to say two things. First, I did something that was probably a bit more mild-mannered than what he did. Well before the last
2 Feb 2010 : Column 14WH
general election, I happened to put a letter around about an issue with a planning application. The letter said that migration, as part of the London plan, influenced housing targets. I was called in by the police about that letter and the police said that if I put it out again, I would receive a caution. I felt that that was like being in a banana republic; it was not appropriate in terms of political correctness. Indeed, I subsequently made it an issue in the general election. Far too often, the police service identifies itself with one political party or another, which is a dangerous practice-and resonant, bearing in mind the experiences of the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman in this debate.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) referred to the British National party. It is not sufficient for political parties to call the BNP names. That has happened not here, but in my local press, in which a Conservative councillor described the BNP as vile. That may well be a fair reflection of some of the people involved in the BNP, but we must nevertheless come to accept that there is a rationality to some people's voting BNP and that we cannot curse them for doing so.

As a scenario, let us suppose that someone comes from a white working-class family on a satellite housing estate with limited access to work. They are out of work, partly because the state has not provided a good-quality education over the years. They find themselves on benefits and undermined by better-educated migrants. If they want to come off benefits, they will have to take a cut in pay. Perhaps the quality of employment would be so poor that they dare not risk coming off benefits for fear of not being able to get back on them again if they lose the job that they are given. Unfortunately, as a result of the conspiracy of silence that we as politicians have progressed, such people feel that the BNP speaks for them.

Therefore, it is vital that we address the issue of migration and discuss whether the policies proposed will be effective. Unfortunately, the Conservative party misleads the electorate by suggesting that a cap will be effective. Exceptions are inevitable, particularly those involving marriage and relatives, so it is not possible to say that a cap can be introduced whereby if we run out of spaces by May, people must wait till January next year to be considered for migration. A points system can be used effectively if politicians decide that migration should be reduced significantly, and that is what needs to be done.

In Croydon, migration is in many ways our business. The UK Border Agency is based there-I emphasise the important role of the Public and Commercial Services Union in its good and professional work force-and there is a strong tradition of tolerance. Recently a notice went up in the UKBA commemorating a lady called Mary Apragas, who spoke of the importance of protecting genuine asylum seekers, not just offering asylum. Our migration service plays an important role in that.

Asylum is a controversial issue in Croydon. It is a shame that the Minister has turned a deaf ear to our concern that extra pressures might be placed on our public services as a result of the closure of the Liverpool office and the concentration of walk-in asylum seekers in Croydon only. Will he at least concede that over the coming year we can measure the effects on a pilot basis?
2 Feb 2010 : Column 15WH
I appreciate that asylum figures have fallen significantly under the Labour Government, but they are nevertheless worthy of measurement.

Finally-I want to provide others with an opportunity to speak-it should be borne in mind that that point comes in the context of our belief in Croydon that the Office for National Statistics figures used for settling how much grant is given to local government may well underestimate our population by 36,400 if GP figures are considered. Some 26,000 national insurance numbers were given to overseas workers in Croydon over the past four years, which suggests that the population in Croydon is much larger than expected.

10.24 am

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I am grateful that there are a few minutes left for two of us to speak. I have a few footnotes to the remarkable debate that we have had, which was led by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I have a huge admiration for him. He has consistently pointed out that the scandalous expansion of our population has mostly afflicted the white working-class poor. They are the people who have paid the rate for it.

Having repeated that, I am afraid that the statistics do not bear it out. I was totting up the numbers in the House of Commons Library brief as the right hon. Gentleman was speaking. The average rate of net migration under the last Conservative Government was barely 13,000 a year. Under Labour, it is 180,000 on paper, but because there are no embarkation controls for most of that period, it is much higher in practice.

Mr. Woolas: I am not denying the hon. Gentleman's point, but those figures are for net migration, which is affected hugely by the number of people who leave the country, such as the 500,000 British people who go to live in Spain and so on. We must put the numbers into that context.

Mr. Brazier: The fact is that net migration was 180,000, even ignoring those who stayed illegally whom we do not know about. If examined closely, the figures for housing are actually much worse than they appear. In round terms, over the past five or six years, between 500,000 and 600,000 have arrived and between 300,000 and 400,000 have left. According to the Government's own figures, about one third of new housing is accounted for by net migration. It follows ineluctably that the whole requirement for new housing comes from gross migration: in other words, the natural growth in households is roughly balanced by emigration. Indeed, one of the reasons most frequently cited by people leaving this country is congestion and overcrowding.

I will make two other brief points; I hope to give my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) a couple of minutes to speak. First, the courts have been no friend to this country in the matter. I have several excellent English language colleges in my constituency, as well as the highest concentration of higher education students in the country. If a series of court rulings absurdly makes it impossible for us speedily to deport students who overstay, we will find ourselves in a ridiculous position in which a Government of any shade will be bound to react with ever more restrictive
2 Feb 2010 : Column 16WH
curbs. Of course, curbing the number of people who learn English will rapidly knock on to curbing the number of people who can come here to enjoy degrees, which would be bad not only for our universities but for forming links with UK plc, as many such people go on to become opinion formers.

My grandfather was an officer in the Indian army, the largest volunteer army in human history. It fought loyally despite including people from almost every known religion and a range of different ethnic groups. I believe strongly that it is possible for Britain to be a happy, assimilated and hugely diverse country, but we must learn lessons from countries such as America and Australia, which have a long history of immigration.

Everybody who comes in legally should be able to speak English. We should insist on it for people who arrive for marriage. We should tighten language controls. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), my party's leader, pointed out early in his leadership campaign, it is absurd that vast numbers of benefits documents should be translated. We should be teaching people English. We must move away from the idea of multiculturalism and, as well as curbing overall immigration numbers, return to the idea that we should all be of one company.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): I call Andrew Turner for the briefest of vignettes.

10.28 am

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for again giving us the opportunity to discuss this important topic. People's concerns about immigration have too often been glossed over or avoided altogether. If we are to prevent the rise of parties such as the BNP, whose values are anathema to Britain, we must place the issue at the centre of debate. People seek fringe parties not because they are inherently racist or bigoted; they do so because those parties heed their concerns as ours, across the piece, do not. We must re-orientate the debate to talk honestly of Britain today.

In a recent survey on the Isle of Wight, immigration emerged as the No. 1 issue. I am sure that that is so with members of the public in other areas, and with good reason. Of 498 respondents on the Isle of Wight, 10 per cent. agreed that asylum seekers should be allowed to work whether they were genuine or not, and 90 per cent. disagreed. It was agreed by 9 per cent. that illegal immigrants who have been here a long time should be given citizenship; more than 90 per cent. disagreed. It was agreed by 92 per cent. that politicians should be more honest about immigrants and how immigration affects our country. They felt that such issues were too important to not be talked about. Members of all parties must make it clear what their policies are. I am grateful that today we are at last getting into some of those issues.

10.30 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Hara. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on initiating this debate. There have been many high-quality contributions, in particular that of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), for whom I have a lot of respect.

2 Feb 2010 : Column 17WH

I will nail down clearly my party's policy, which is important given the coming general election. It is important that we all make it clear where we are going and what we need to do. I want to disabuse the right hon. Gentleman of his idea that the Liberal Democrats want a totally open door on immigration; that has never been the case. It is true that during the problems in east Africa and Asia, we said that we had to honour our obligations. I do not apologise for that. It is also true that during the debate on Hong Kong, we said that if passports had been issued, they should be honoured. However, at no stage have we said that there should be total, free and unfettered immigration.

We disagree with people who call for an artificial cap. We certainly disagree that concentrating on a certain population figure is the way to deal with the problem. That is not to say that we want to see the population of the country grow inextricably. Clearly we cannot have the levels of immigration we have had for the past 12 years. We want to see a concentration on this debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) that we should focus on immigrants who bring skills that the country needs and who can contribute to the country, rather than on an artificial cap.

Mr. Frank Field: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that after the next election, the Liberals will be committed to taking all possible measures to stop the population going above 70 million?

Paul Rowen: We believe that the debate on population obscures the real issue. It is easy to say that there should be a limit of 40,000 immigrants a year or a population limit of 70 million, but we have to ask why there has been such a large explosion of people coming into this country. It is primarily because, in 1994, the Conservative Government dismantled the exit controls in this country. Even now, we do not have a proper idea of who is coming into and, more importantly, who is leaving the country. If identity cards are fully introduced, it will be 2014 before we have that information. That is why we have a problem.

Damian Green: I would hate to see the hon. Gentleman doing the Minister's dirty work for him. In 1994, the controls were taken off within the EU. In 1998, under this Government, the controls for the rest of the world were taken off. The 2014 deadline is for e-Borders, not ID cards.

Paul Rowen: Regardless of that, the fact is that both Labour and the Conservatives dismantled controls and therefore lost control of the system. We have always concentrated on having a workable immigration policy that is fair and clear for all who apply. It was very disappointing that the recent second report of the Home Affairs Committee found that yet another 40,000 cases have been discovered-probably in a cupboard-some of which date back to 1993.

Our concern has always been that the measures needed for a fair and effective immigration policy are not in place. First, the UK Border Agency must be given full powers as a working police force. It should not just deal with people as they come up to our borders, but work more closely with our European partners. I want the Government to sign up completely to the Council of Europe convention on human trafficking. Much can be achieved by working with our partners in Europe.

2 Feb 2010 : Column 18WH

Secondly, we would increase the fees for work permits. Our fees are among the lowest and are particularly low in comparison with America and Australia. Rather than have a fixed rate, the fees taken would be a percentage of the salary. With highly skilled migrants, the problem for a company of paying the fee would be outweighed by the great benefit that the person would bring. We would use that money to help upskill people in Britain who do not have such skills.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Is it not the case that the Liberals would propose a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been here for 10 years?

Paul Rowen: We do not support the policy of a complete amnesty for all migrants introduced by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. We have said that we will set up a path to earned citizenship, under which certain clear conditions must be met. That policy is based on clear economics. If we accept the London School of Economics figure that there are 600,000 illegal immigrants in this country and consider that it would cost £11,000 to deport each one, we are talking about spending roughly £7 billion on their deportation. Given that many of those people have families, have worked in this country and have paid taxes, providing that they have not broken the law-[Interruption.] If they break the law, they will be deported. That is the policy now and we support it. We support an earned citizenship route, not carte blanche amnesties.

Our policy is that there must be greater concentration on the points-based work permit system that has been introduced. As in Australia and Canada, we would extend that to a regional points-based system. In Canada, it is difficult for migrants, highly skilled or not, to go to Vancouver or Quebec because going to highly populated regions is discouraged. The effects of over-population on schools, hospitals and GPs in parts of London have been mentioned. A flexible points-based system that takes account of the population and employment needs in each region would be much fairer. That would be far better than the bald system set out by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex of only 40,000 immigrants a year coming into the country.

Can you imagine, Mr O'Hara, Manchester City having to announce that Ronaldinho could not join the team because the cap on the number of immigrants for the year had been reached? My organiser, who is a Manchester City supporter, would be horrified to learn that because of a quirk of the system, a top football team could not recruit a highly skilled migrant. That is at the root of the problem with the balanced migration group's call for an artificial cap.

We want tight controls and for illegal immigrants to be deported. We want a system that is flexible, fair and responsive to needs. We do not believe that the proposals of the balanced migration group would achieve that. We want the extension of the points-based system to a regional level and for the UK Border Agency to have the powers to operate as a working police force so that it can undertake the work it is handicapped in doing because of the quirks of the system. If we can have that, immigration will be reduced. However, such a situation will not happen immediately because, having turned the tap on, we cannot suddenly turn it off.

2 Feb 2010 : Column 19WH

I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex about the operation of student visas: that is an area of Government policy that has clearly failed. However, I also agree with the Home Affairs Committee that we do not need more legislation to make the system work; instead, more attention should be given to the administrative systems on the ground and delivering what is already in place. If that happens, we will have a policy that works and there will not be a breach of the 70 million population figure. I would rather concentrate on making the system work than on an artificial figure because, at the end of the day, if we do not get the system to work, we will not have a cat in hell's chance of maintaining that figure.

10.40 am

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has been tireless in pursuit of the belief that immigration is an important issue, and he was characteristically eloquent in expressing his views today. I begin by reassuring him and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) that a Conservative Government would not introduce an amnesty either. We need to be clear about that.

For much of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex talked about projections. Those projections inspire much of the fear that has caused the growth of extremism, about which hon. Members from all parties have talked. That projected increase is on a different scale from anything that we have seen recently. In the past 20 years, our population has grown by 4 million; over the next 20 years, our population is projected to grow by about 9 million, which is more than twice as fast.

I agree with the point, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), that it is the scale of the change that inspires many of the tensions. The Home Secretary has said that he does not lose sleep over Britain's rapidly rising populations. However, if we carry on like this, those trends will put huge pressure on our national infrastructure in key areas such as housing, public services and transport, and the problems will continue.

Population growth is clearly caused by a variety of factors and is a combination of higher life expectancy and higher net immigration. The Conservatives believe that it is essential to take action on the latter to ensure that our population changes and grows at a more sustainable rate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the leader of the Conservative party, has stated that he does not support the thought of our population being as high as 70 million and said that the current level of net immigration is too high.

As several of my hon. Friends have said, we believe that Britain can benefit from immigration. We want the brightest and the best to come and work in this country, but we do not benefit from out of control immigration. Our policy is therefore to target reducing immigration, so that the figure for net immigration is in the tens of thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands of the past 10 years.

Next Section Index Home Page